The Untold Story of English, “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue”

The real story of English is about what happened when Old English was battered by Vikings and bastardized by Celts. The real story… shows us how English is genuinely weird – miscegenated, abbreviated. Interesting.

– John McWhorter, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

I also am a daughter of the colony.
I share their broken speech, their other-whereness.

No testament or craft of mine can hide
our presence
on the distaff side of history.

– Eavan Boland, “Daughters of Colony”

The real story of any language is determined by how it is most widely used, not how it is supposed to be used. It’s in common usage that the glorious drama of a language is played out. The history of language is thus in fact most shaped by the underclasses who speak and tweak it most, not those few who access it at the highest levels of class and culture. The story of English in particular has been “written” as much or more by those countless millions of illiterate and semi-literate common folk down the ages who left no written record than by those few who did.

That is one of the central themes of an excellent little book I just finished called Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English (2008) by John McWhorter. As a Middle School English teacher, I admit to having expended many gallons of red ink over the years in correcting my students’ abysmal spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and I will not hesitate to argue the continued importance of learning to write in the “proper” form of the English language, even as our country worryingly transitions (back) to a more oral culture.

At the same time, historically-speaking, the notion that there is actually any sort of proper, pure, or correct English – in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, what-have-you – is of course classist, tribal nonsense. Don’t believe me? Try making sense of Beowulf (c. 700–1000 AD) in the original Old English or even The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400 AD) in the original Middle English – without the footnotes. Both are unintelligible on their own to average modern readers.

The version of English that we think of as “proper” English today is only about 200 years old –the English of Jane Austen and Nathanial Hawthorne. But English as a distinct language is at least 1500 years old and has undergone numerous dramatic transformations over that time.

So what’s the real story? Well, let’s start with the false – or partial – story. McWhorter first lays out the flawed version of English’s history most prominent in the public’s imagination:

The way it is traditionally told, the pathway from Old English to Modern English has been a matter of taking on a great big bunch of words…

You may well know the saga already. Germanic tribes called Angles, Saxons, and Jutes invade Britain in the fifth century. They bring along their Anglo-Saxon language, which we call Old English.

Then come the words. English gets new ones in three main rounds.

Round One is when Danish and Norwegian Vikings start invading in 787. They speak Old Norse, a close relative of Old English, and sprinkle around their versions of words we already have, so that today we have both SKIRTS and SHIRTS, DIKES and DITCHES. Plus lots of other words…

Round Two: more words from the Norman French after William (i.e., Guillaume) the Conqueror takes over “Englaland” in 1066. For the next three centuries, French is the language of government, the arts, and learning. Voilà, scads of new words, like ARMY, APPAREL, and LOGIC.

Then Round Three: Latin. When England falls into the Hundred Years’ War [1337-1453] with France, English becomes the ruling language once more, and English writers start grabbing up Latin terms from classical authors—ABROGATE and so on.

This version is not entirely false, but according to McWhorter, it is so insufficient as to be deeply misleading. The primary reason it is so misleading is that languages are not made up merely of words but of grammar as well, and to focus solely on words is to miss half of the story – in the case of English, specifically the “distaff” side of the story. He continues:

[T]he pathway from BEOWULF to THE ECONOMIST has involved as much transformation in grammar as in words, more so, in fact, than in any of English’s close relatives. English is more peculiar among its relatives, and even the world’s languages as a whole, in what has happened to its grammar than in what has happened to its vocabulary…

[In fact,] compared to how languages typically change over time, English lost a perplexingly VAST amount of grammar. Moreover, the grammar that it took on, like the -ING usage, seems ordinary only because we speak English. If we pull the camera back, the things English took on seem strikingly peculiar compared to anything its relatives like German and Swedish were then taking on—or in a case or two, what any languages on earth were taking on!

So how did this transformation really occur? Well, let’s look at it all in a few stages: (1) How English Began, (2) How the Celts Transformed English, (3) Why the Celtic Influence Has Been Overlooked, and finally (4) How the Vikings Likewise “Battered” English. Here goes…

Part 1: How English Began

The major families of languages in the world today are Indo-European (which includes English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian, Bengali, and Hindi), Sino-Tibetan (which includes the different types of Chinese), Afro-Asiatic (which includes Arabic), Austronesian (which includes Javanese, Malay, and Tagalog), Niger-Congo (which includes Swahili and Yoruba), Dravidian (which includes Tamil and Telagu), Altaic (which includes Turkish), Austro-Asiatic (which includes Vietnamese), Amerindian, Uralic, and finally Japanese and Korean (which basically stand apart from the rest). The branch we’re most interested in as English speakers is of course the first in that list, Indo-European, a language family tree of which can be seen above or examined here in more depth.

English began as a breakaway language from the Proto-Germanic family, a branch of the Indo-European tree. Here’s McWhorter’s overview of the Proto-Germanic branch:  

English is one of about a dozen languages that are all so basically similar in terms of words and grammar, and mostly spoken so close to one another, that they all obviously began as a single language (although English is very much a prodigal son). The languages besides English include German, Dutch, Yiddish, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Icelandic, plus some less familiar languages, like Faroese and Frisian, and Afrikaans in South Africa…

The parent to all of these languages was spoken about twenty-five hundred years ago in what is now Denmark (and a ways southward) and on the southerly ends of Sweden and Norway. We will never know what the people who spoke the language called it, but linguists call it Proto-Germanic

The Germanic languages other than English are about as similar as French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese. English, however, is another story…

English’s Germanic relatives are like assorted varieties of deer—antelopes, springboks, kudu, and so on—antlered, fleet-footed, big-brown-eyed variations on a theme. English is some dolphin swooping around underwater… Dolphins are mammals like deer… But clearly the dolphin has strayed from the basic mammalian game plan to an extent that no deer has.

So why? What happened? Well, the first step in the English journey came in the early 5th-century AD when the Roman army withdrew from Britain and returned to the mainland to try to defend its crumbling and besieged empire. This left a power vacuum in the British Isles, which had long been populated by scattered Celtic tribes.

Almost immediately, several Germanic tribes from the mainland began to raid the islands – namely the Angles and the Saxons coming from northwestern Germany and the Jutes from southern Denmark. Before long, warriors from these tribes were conquering and settling large swaths of Britain and by 600 AD had established a number of independent kingdoms within territories that had once been Roman, including the kingdoms of Wessex (west Saxons), Sussex (south Saxons), and Northumbria (north of Humber). Thus cut off from the mainland and soon mingled with Celtic tongues, “English” as a distinct branch of Proto-Germanic was born.

Part 2: How the Celts Transformed English

Of course, as I’ve already noted, Old English – the version first brought by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes – would be essentially unrecognizable to us today. The first step in English’s transformation was actually its encounter with the subjugated Celtic populations scattered throughout the British Isles. “English,” as McWhorter charmingly explains, “is kinky. It has a predilection for dressing up like Welsh on lonely nights.”

So what’s he talking about? As far as we know, English didn’t actually get that many new words from the Celtic tongues being spoken in the Isles in the 5th century. Instead, they picked up some very peculiar, and yet extremely commonly used, grammatical “perversions”. The first McWhorter highlights is what he calls the “meaningless do.” In other words, in English, we all of a sudden started using the verb “to do” in places where it wasn’t needed and did nothing to change the meaning of a sentence. Here is a brief explanation from an article in The Economist:

Take the question: Do you like chicken? and the answer: No I don’t like chicken.

In Spanish, do and doesn’t aren’t translated because they don’t exist. The question is: Te gusta el pollo? The answer: No, no me gusta el pollo.

So the dilemma made me start questioning why we even use Do or Don’t or Doesn’t. Because if the question was: You like chicken? And the answer: No, I not like chicken… the meaning would be completely clear – grammatically correct or no.

And yet there it is – the “meaningless do” just sitting there is countless English sentences written and spoken every day. As McWhorter explains at length, this use of “to do” is not found in any other Proto-Germanic languages and is in fact almost nonexistent among the 6000 known languages around in the world… except for in the peculiar old Celtic tongues of the British Isles, namely Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, and Cornish.

But that’s not all. McWhorter also highlights English’s use of the “progressive –ing” when speaking in the present tense. Again, the use of this strange verb ending in the present tense is of course extremely common in English. We use the present “progressive –ing” all the time, without thinking it strange whatsoever. Here’s an example McWhorter gives:

Imagine you’re at your laptop writing an email and someone asks what you’re doing and you say “I write.” It’s impossible to imagine that said by anyone without a foreign accent, and one imagines that the email such a person would write would be full of mistakes. “I write” would be, quite simply, incorrect. Your answer would be “I’m writing.” …

Yet once again, that’s not the way it is in any other language you learn. In Spanish, your answer if asked what you were doing would be “Escribo.” The French person would answer “J’écris.”

Seriously, try and find another language in the world that uses the present “progressive –ing” the way English does, and you won’t – except among those queer old Celtic tongues. As McWhorter writes, “Celtic marches to the beat of its own drum,” and as a result of its long cohabitation among the Celtic tongues, so too does English. He summarizes:

[T]he Angles, Saxons, and Jutes brought a language to Britain in which a sentence like DID YOU SEE WHAT HE IS DOING? would have sounded absurd. The people already living in Britain spoke some of the very, very few languages in the world – and possibly the only ones – where that sentence would sound perfectly normal. After a while, that kind of sentence was being used in English as well.

There are other small effects he mentions that the Celtic tongues likely had on English, but the “meaningless do” and “progressive –ing” are the biggest. And yet, as he explains, what’s astonishing is that specialists in the history of English have largely ignored any such influence in the evolution of English. There can be little doubt based on the research McWhorter presents that the encounter with Celtic deeply altered the way that English was spoken and eventually written – at least grammatically – and yet mention of this influence is strikingly absent from the literature: “You can page through countless books and articles on The History of English, and even on specifically the history of meaningless do and the –ing present, and find Celtic either not mentioned at all, actively dismissed, or, at best, mentioned in passing as ‘a possible influence.’”

Part 3: Why the Celtic Influence Has Been Overlooked

So why? What’s the deal? Are linguists all inherently prejudiced against the lowly Celts? Well, not really – or at least, only indirectly.

You see, in the early history of English, the Celtic peoples of the British Isles were on the “distaff side” of history – they were the subjugated, uneducated, underclass. And hence, their influence on English was basically undocumented. McWhorter wrestles with three possible assumptions – all mistaken – that linguists have made which likely explain why this influence has so long been ignored, with the third being, in my view, the most important.

Assumption #1 is that the Celts couldn’t have so influenced English because they “all just died.” As McWhorter explains, some linguists have assumed that “after their arrival in England in A.D. 449, the Germanic invaders routed the Celts in more or less a genocide, leaving mere remnants huddling on the southwesterly fringes of the island.” In other words, not enough “Celtic speakers survived the genocide to influence the language.”

Of course, this theory is complete poppycock. First of all, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes weren’t really capable of such a sweeping extermination:

[T]he truth is that the genocide of an entire society inhabiting vast expanses of territory is possible only with modern technology. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did not possess anything we would consider modern technology… Remember, there weren’t even guns yet.

What’s more, there were never actually that many Germanic invaders. The local Celts always dramatically outnumbered them. As McWhorter continues,

It turns out that only about 4 percent of British men’s genetic material is traceable to a migration from across the North Sea. Moreover, essentially none of British women’s genetic material traces back to such a migration, meaning that the invaders were not couples with children… [but] just a bunch of guys. In fact, evidently the famous Germanic invaders numbered about 250,000, about as many people as live in a modest-sized burg like Jersey City.

This all makes the notion of a mass genocide extremely dubious. Instead, what undoubtedly occurred as these Germanic warriors settled and built homes and families among the conquered Celts is what always happens “when languages come together: they mix. There is no recorded case in human history in which languages were spoken side by side and did not spice one another with not only words, but grammar.” Thus, as McWhorter concludes,

The way that English uses DO and –ING just like Celtic, then, is predictable. Celts, less exterminated than grievously inconvenienced, had to learn the language of the new rulers. The Celts’ English was full of mistakes – that is, ways of putting words together that worked in Celtic but were new to Old English. However, over time, this Celtic-inflected English was so common – after all, there had only ever been 250,000 Germanic invaders – that even Anglo kids and Saxon kids started learning it from the cradle.

Ok, that sounds pretty solid to me, and helps us make sense of assumption #1. But what about the others?

Assumption #2 is that English didn’t really pick up the “meaningless do” and “progressive –ing” from the Celts but instead that those linguistic tweaks just sort of happened naturally over time. After all, at least to some extent, languages do change naturally over time. Who’s to say the same didn’t happen with these central components of English grammar?

Well, McWhorter again thoroughly discredits this notion. First of all, as regards the case of the “meaningless do”:

The only languages in the world that are known at present to have a meaningless DO as English does are (drumroll, please) none other than the Celtic languages. Can we really believe that the Celts had nothing to do with English’s meaningless do, which parallels it so closely and once did so even more?

This rarity across the world’s 6000 languages of our usage of do is almost as extreme with the “progressive –ing,” English’s “verb-noun present.” (In case you needed a reminder of what this looks like: “I am reading,” “we are moving,” “they are voting,” etc.) McWhorter continues:

[T]he sheer presence in a language of a progressive construction using a verb-noun is not all that extraordinary. It happens here and there that people might need to say that they are currently “in” an action…

English is peculiar, however, in taking the ball and running with it, to the point that the bare verb is nosed out completely. That is something much rarer in languages, popping up only in obscure corners here and there. Basque is one, a language related to no other one on earth. Or there is one little dialect of Greek (Tsakonian, for the record) that has booted bare verbs in the present and uses a progressive…

But then, another of the obscure corners in question is good old Celtic. English is the only Germanic language that developed in a context where Celts were the original inhabitants – and English is also the only Germanic language that turned its verb-noun progressive into its only present tense.

It strains credulity to suppose that these are merely extreme coincidences. Confronted with this overwhelming evidence, McWhorter reasons, “all human beings would draw the same conclusion – except those who know more about the history of the English language than anyone else in the world. What could the blockage possible be?” Well, now we get to the crux of why the Celtic influence has so long been ignored…

Assumption #3 for why the Celts couldn’t have influenced English as McWhorter describes is that “writing is how people talked.” Here’s the basic historical conundrum likely at the root of our long-spanning tendency in the scholarship to overlook Celtic influence:

Old English speakers met Celts starting in A.D. 449. This would be when Celts started learning and transforming the English language. Yet there is not a hint of meaningless do in any English document until the 1300s, in Middle English. Century after century of Old English writing and no meaningless do at all. Why does it show up so late? …

If Celts mashed their mix-ins into English, then why did they take almost a thousand years to do it?

Well, of course the answer is that they didn’t. The lingual mixing surely began from the outset of the Germanic conquest. The reason these Celtic “mix-ins” don’t show up in the written record is the same reason that vast amounts of contemporary English slang don’t show up in the pages of The New York Times or the texts of Supreme Court decisions – it wasn’t “proper” English. It wasn’t the English of the educated and political elite, but of the common folk, the lowly conquered Celts. This is an important point, so it’s worth quoting McWhorter at length:

Writing and talking are very different things. This is clear to us when it plays out in our own times with our own languages: in the entire eighty-five-year run of TIME [Magazine] one could miss that in casual speech people say “whole nother.” But when we are dealing with languages of antiquity, who casual renditions we cannot experience, the gulf between writing and speaking cannot help but be less apparent. We will never know how Old English was spoken by illiterate farmers; the written version that survives for us to peruse is the only rendition of the language we will ever know. However, people way back when were no more given to gliding around talking like books that we are, and in fact, writing and talking were much more different for them than for us.

In ancient times, few societies had achieved widespread literacy. Writing was primarily for high literary, liturgical, and commercial purposes. Spoken language changed always, but the written form rested unchanging on the page. There was not felt to be a need to keep the written form in step with the way people were changing the language with each generation.

For one, each language was actually spoken as a group of dialects… Old English, for example, came in four flavors: Northumbrian, Mercian, Kentish, and West Saxon. Most Old English documents are in the West Saxon dialect, because Wessex happened to become politically dominant early on…

In addition, there was always a natural tendency, which lives on today, to view the written language as the “legitimate” or “true” version, with the spoken forms of the language as degraded or, at best, quaint – certainly not something you would take the trouble of etching onto the page for posterity with quill and ink…

And, by and large, speakers of Old English did not read. Writing was better described as SCRIPTURE – a formal, ritualized, elite pursuit, preserved via scribes copying old texts century after century, sequestered in thick-walled edifices from the hurly-burly of actual everyday speech. In this rigidly classist world, casual English… was no more likely to wind up engraved in ink that the charming babblings of toddlers.

Thus, in this mostly illiterate cultural context, the little English that was actually written down for centuries remained in a very static form of English even as the spoken language changed.

So why then did the Celtic “mix-ins” all of a sudden start to appear in the written record in the 1300s? What opened the door so that the spoken English was more reflected on the page? Well, McWhorter has a pretty convincing explanation for that as well: it was the French.

The year 1100 is when, largely, Old English stopped and Middle English, an almost curiously different thing, began. Middle English was, indeed, a profound transformation of Old English. Partly, yes, in terms of words – a bunch of French ones started pouring in – but also in terms of grammar. When the Norman French conquered England in 1066 and established French as the written language of the land, for the next century-and-a-half there is almost no written English that has survived. Then after relations with France began to sour in the early 1200s and English started to be used as a written language again, we see a brand-new, slimmed-down English, as if it were in an “after” picture in a diet ad.

In other words, the Norman Conquest essentially wiped out the Old English literary establishment, and then when the French influence subsided two centuries later, a new Middle English literary establishment was able to grow up in its place, but having jettisoned many of the literary norms and restraints of the old establishment. As McWhorter concludes, “Middle English is what had been gradually happening to spoken Old English for centuries before it showed up in the written record.” But the “only thing that led writers to start actually putting this ‘real’ Old English on the page was the 150-year blackout period” – a “historical catastrophe… after which, in many ways, England learned to write again.”  Only massive political upheaval enabled Middle English to “come out of the closet.” What an interesting story!

Perhaps the most delicious irony of this whole linguistic evolution-via-exchange is that the subjugated peoples of the British Isles – the Celtic tribes – ultimately gained the upper hand over their Germanic conquerors in shaping the English language. In some sense, they finally got their revenge: “The Germanic invaders, like dominant classes worldwide at the time, enshrined a version of their language on the page that reflected what it was like before it came to be spoken and reshaped by the people who, albeit subjugated, continued to vastly outnumber them, and who passed their rendition of the language on to future generations.”  

Part 4: How the Vikings “Battered” English

The Celtic tribes aren’t the only ones who have had a substantial but somewhat covert influence on the history of English. As McWhorter explains, the marauding Vikings likewise did quite a number on our “magnificent bastard tongue,” and – at least in terms of their role in shaping our grammar – haven’t been given the credit for it they deserve.

Despite being thoroughly “miscegenated” and having innumerable confusing exceptions to its spelling and grammatical rules, English is, according to McWhorter, actually a relatively easy language, globally speaking. A big reason why is precisely that it is “miscegenated” – that it has been “battered,” or streamlined, through its intimate liaisons with other languages, particularly, it turns out, that of the waves of Vikings that settled northern Britain from the 8th-10th centuries.

“Foreigners,” he writes, are “given to saying English is ‘easy,’ and they are on to something, to the extent that they mean that English [1] has no lists of conjugational endings and [2] doesn’t make some nouns masculine and others feminine.” Just as with the “meaningless do” and “progressive –ing,” these grammatical traits again decisively set English apart from its dozen or so Germanic peers – German, Dutch, Yiddish, Swedish, etc. – and its Latin peers – Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc. But like these Indo-European cousins, English still had those complex word endings and gendered nouns in its Old English days, and yet by Middle English it was well along the way to sloughing them all off. So what happened? Well, this time, McWhorter argues, it was “the Danes and Scandinavians who… battered not only people, monasteries, and legal institutions, but the English language itself.”

Traditional scholarship has acknowledged the impact of Viking incursions on our accumulation of new words – i.e., like the French but mostly unlike the Celts, the Vikings transferred a number of their own words into our vocabulary. (The reason fewer Celtic words passed into English is that Celtic tongues weren’t blended up melting-pot-style with English in the same way as French and Old Norse, but instead coexisted alongside English for centuries among commoners who were largely bilingual.) What the traditional scholarship has overlooked, however, is once again the impact of the Vikings on English grammar.

Let’s first look at those verb and nouns endings. According to McWhorter, Old English shed so many endings that “in comparison Middle English seems like one of those nearly hairless cats… Where in Modern English we have I love, you love, he loves, we love, where the only ending is the third person one with its –s,” Old English had numerous different endings for the different subject cases. But then, the Vikings that first started raiding and settling the British Isles – and spoke an early branch of Proto-Germanic called Old Norse – had their own complex verb and noun endings, just as their Old English counterparts. So why, and how, did they contribute to the shedding of these endings in Old English? Here’s McWhorter:

When the Vikings came, one of their first tasks was to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons. This was not as tough a proposition for them as the one they would have faced had they invaded Greece. It is assumed that speakers of Old English and speakers of Old Norse could probably wangle a conversation… [But f]or the Old Norse speaker, Old English was familiar but different… Old English had endings in the same places and used in the same ways – but DIFFERENT endings.

So the largely adult male Vikings who came to the British Isles weren’t having to learn an entirely new language from scratch, so much as adapt their own language to Old English. Of course, theoretically, they could simply have learned the new endings used in Old English – just the way students of any second language would in modern classrooms. And yet, they were learning it on the fly as adults and, once again, they were doing it without the benefit of any formal instruction. This brings us back to the issue of spoken versus written language:  

This was a basically bookless realm, recall, and so a Norseman did not see tables of endings laid out neatly on a page like this, nor did anyone teach him the language formally at all… It was an oral world – people just talked; they didn’t write or read. The Norseman just heard these endings being used on the fly. It must have been confusing, and as such, tempting to just leave the endings off when speaking English, since he could be understood without them most of the time.

This “sloughing-off” that thus occurred among the successive waves of Vikings scattering out through the land was a highly organic, practical, bottom-up process that took place over several hundred years. Spoken language – the purview of common folk – tends to evolve along the path of least resistance, and these Norsemen settling in the northern half of the British Isles were quite content to jettison some of the challenging differences they encountered between their native tongue and the version of Old English the locals spoke by the 8th century.

But they didn’t stop at just the erosion of conjugational endings. According to McWhorter, the Viking hordes did basically the same thing for basically the same reasons to Old English’s gendered nouns – which were well on the way to being done away with by the dawn of Middle English – as well as to several other linguistic holdovers from the mainland, notably the “quirk common in European languages, that often you do things ‘to yourself’ which in English you just do.” (Note: while many European languages still use hundreds of verbs in this way, the only Modern English versions of these remaining “are behave yourself, to perjure yourself, and to pride yourself (upon).”) The sloughing off of gendered nouns was again an astonishing deviance from the normal course of English’s sibling languages. In fact, as McWhorter writes, “English is the only Indo-European language in all of Europe that has no gender – the only one.

All of these simplifications ultimately made English’s grammar much easier than that of its Germanic peers. (Hurray!) And yet, McWhorter explains, the scholarship has again done remarkably little to account for them:

The Grand Old History of English describes these ‘difficult’ features as just mysteriously melting away. But none of these authors have had occasion to consider how very MANY such features just melted away, and that nothing similar was happening in other Germanic languages. The question beckons: why has English been so strangely prone to just letting it all go?

These vast grammatical perversions didn’t “just happen” naturally to English and yet not in any other language. Clearly, as in the case of the Celtic perversions, “something happened to English. Someone did something to it.”

Okay, but how do we know it was the Vikings that “battered” our grammar, and not the Celts again or the French? Well, McWhorter goes into quite some detail on this matter, but there are several interesting points he makes.

First, as I’ve noted, the Vikings came in successive waves over a century or two as adults, scattering out among the commoners and “having to do their raggedy best speaking Englisc on a regular basis.” In other words, for generations, more Norsemen kept coming, all butchering the new-ish language as they strove to assimilate. This was quite different from the French model: “whereas French came to England as an elite language spoken by rulers living remotely from the common folk, the Vikings took root on the ground, often marrying English-speaking women, such that their children actually heard quite a bit of their ‘off’ English.”

But they didn’t actually settle everywhere. They settled primarily in the North. In fact, an agreement was reached in 886 that required to Vikings to “confine their dominion to the northern and eastern half of England, thence termed the Danelaw.” Thus, “in many places they were quite densely concentrated: in some parts of the Danelaw most people were of Danish ancestry. This means that ‘Scandi’-sounding English would have been a matter of not just the occasional Dane or Norwegian here and there… but a critical mass of people.” In these parts of Britain,

Scandinavians speaking incomplete English would have been so common that children would have heard this faulty rendition as much as, if not more than, regular English – to the extent that ‘foreigner’ English affected what they grew up using as everyday speech…

[Remember,] children in this era did not go to school, did not read, and there was no ‘standard English’ that they encountered in the media, because in ordinary daily life there was no media to speak of.

This is precisely why so many dialects developed in pre-modern times, not just in English but in other languages as well, and conversely why in our age of modern entertainment and education, with their mostly standardized forms of language, local dialects are harder to maintain.

The second point that McWhorter makes is related to the first: because the Vikings settled as they did – “on the ground” as adults, and primarily in particular regions – the specific changes to English grammar attributed to their influence didn’t actually occur all at once throughout the British Isles. According to the written records we do have for the late Old English and early Middle English period, the “battering” of English grammar began in precisely the regions that were most heavily settled by the Vikings, and yet took centuries longer to take root in the English dialects that were spoken in the mainly southern regions where Vikings never settled. Here’s McWhorter:

[I]n documents, we clearly see that English gets simpler first in the north – where the Scandinavians were densely settled. Old English came in at least four dialects. The one usually written in was West Saxon, which is to us today ‘normal’ Old English. But one of the dialects spoken in the Danelaw region was Northumbrian. In Northumbrian toward the end of Old English, as the Battle of Hastings was looming, the conjugational endings were already wearing out… And by Middle English, in the north, this erosion continued…

It was the same with gender: it starts flaking away in Northumbrian Old English, while down south all three genders held on… into Middle English.

There are several reasons why it couldn’t have been the Celts this time who were responsible for these further grammatical perversions – you’ll have to read the book to get the full story – but suffice it to say, “If the Celts were responsible, then the endings would have dropped away throughout England, or at least in regions where Celts, rather than Vikings, were more densely settled. They did not.”

So there you have it, you can thank legions of marauding Vikings lazily “mangling” our beloved tongue for never having to learn conjugational lists and noun genders in school the way you do when you study French, German, Spanish, or plenty of other languages. Thanks Vikings!

Concluding Thoughts

There is certainly much more to the story of English than I have covered here, or is even covered by McWhorter (e.g., he doesn’t even mention how we got our modern alphabet), but the ones I have outlined here seemed to me the key takeaways – at least the most interesting ones – from his slender volume. There are several worthwhile chapters I completely skipped over in this synopsis, and which you’ll have to read for yourselves. In one, for example, McWhorter writes about how English likely contains many words from a mysterious Semitic language source (possibly Phoenician) that it absorbed from a lengthy linguistic liaison before it was even Old English –i.e. when it was Proto-Germanic – sometime in the last several centuries B.C. In other words, “There was a history of bastardy in English long before it was even a twinkle in Proto-Germanic’s eye.”

The one obvious overarching takeaway of this book is thus just how thoroughly “battered,” “bastardized,” and “miscegenated” our beloved English is – and thus how ridiculous we all are to go around lording “proper” English over our fellow English speakers. It’s an incredible hubris, unless you are an English teacher or some kind of editor, to go around correcting other people’s grammar, or even quietly congratulating ourselves at how much more “correct” our own grammar is than that of others. (The same could be said of the history of English spelling, which was not really standardized until spelling was codified in the influential English dictionaries of Samuel Johnson (1755) and Noah Webster (1806).)

Every time English has had a prolonged intimate liaison with other languages, it has changed, sometimes dramatically – and not because some elites got together in the medieval equivalent of a boardroom and decided to change it. No, the construction of our language has been a profoundly democratic, bottom-up, affair, involving primarily lowly commoners from numerous cultures, regions, races, and religions using the language to communicate however they liked. And now that English is spoken the world over, that bizarre and incredibly interesting bottom-up evolution will no doubt continue. I’ve tried to read Beowulf. I can tell you, “proper” English is overrated.

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