June 20, 2006

Speak we proper English?

"What's this with people using IMPACT as a verb?" "But it has to be BILLY AND I WENT TO THE STORE because I is a subject." "Kids are saying 'I'M ALL, YOU CAN'T COME WITH ME.' What's up with that?" That grand old idea: there is some logically "correct" English that for some reason most people can't quite pull off, like they don't floss enough. But one thing people miss is what an arbitrary bastard patchwork of a mess English actually is, and not just because (ho-hum) it has a bunch of French and Latin words in it.

That part, after all, is easy. Everybody knows and accepts that language changes in terms of the fact that words come and go. That seems natural, since life changes. And no problem that the words come from other languages sometimes; that's natural because people mix. Plus it's hard to mind having taken on so many words from romantic French and noble old Latin.

People get itchy with the idea that GRAMMAR changes. But the very birth of Modern English, the language we are now taught is "proper," entailed the complete thrashing of an earlier English. If English had developed according to its own devices, then today we English speakers would find German pretty easy to pick up, just as Dutch speakers do. Instead, we speak a deeply odd singleton of a tongue.

For example, when's the last time you learned a language other than English that uses DO to form questions and make sentences negative? Think about it. "DO you like fish?" "I DO not like fish. " As languages go, this is really, really weird. Of course you might not think so if you were one of the 7000 people who speak, say, Nanai way, way, way down East in Siberia. But otherwise, some of the very few languages on the planet where people use DO this way are, as it happens, Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. These are Celtic languages spoken right alongside English for 1500 years-plus.

For centuries after (Old) English speakers came to Britain, the original inhabitants commonly spoke both a Celtic language and English. Increasing numbers of linguists are arguing that these people gave English a goodly chunk of not words, but grammar, the way the language is put together from the ground up. Traditionally, linguists have reconstructed ways that things like DO could have arisen just all by itself. But these accounts often leave as many questions as answers, one being why NO other Germanic language developed something similar.

Given that Celtic languages were right there alongside English all the time, if English and Celtic share features of grammar that are rather unusual worldwide, then obviously Attention Must Be Paid to Celtic. Another Celtic inheritance is almost certainly the progressive -ING one: in any other Germanic language, where I say I AM WRITING they would just say I WRITE. Again, Celtic languages have always done it as English now does.

I'M KNITTING THIS; DO YOU LIKE IT? would have sounded hopeless in Old English: about as hopeless as I KNIT THIS; LIKE YOU IT? does to us. However, that is how Old English rendered the sentence, just like any card-carrying Germanic language but English still does today. The only reason that I'M KNITTING THIS; DO YOU LIKE IT? is now "proper" English is because English took a walk on the wild side with Welsh and Cornish. Surely there were people back in the day thinking that I'M KNITTING THIS; DO YOU LIKE IT? was "bad" English.

Clearly, the whole notion of "good" and "bad" made no sense then. Well, what about now? Back in the day no one used DO to form questions. We do now. Back in the day no one used IMPACT as a verb. They do now. I doubt anyone would say that it's only okay for our grammar to change in ways that make it more like other languages, and so we can't say that DO is okay because it's Celtic but IMPACT is wrong because we're doing it ourselves.

Sure, we need a standard language. Every new thing that people start saying cannot be immediately ushered into the house style of the New York Times. But even if it were, it would not spell the death of civilization. More to the point, the novelties in casual speech are just different, not wrong. After all, the grammar I am writing in seems "proper" enough, doesn't it? And yet to the authors of Beowulf, that last sentence would sound like "good" English mangled by a Celt!

Posted by John McWhorter at June 20, 2006 03:29 PM