February 17, 2008

The History of English Obscured

I was startled the other day when I wandered into Borders and saw, prominently displayed on the central "new books" table, M.J. Harper's book The Secret History of the English Language (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2008). I didn't have time to give it a thorough inspection, but it looks like the same book, except for the title, as M.J. Harper's The History of Britain Revealed (London: Nathan Carmody Independent Publishers, 2002). It's possible that I'm the only Language Log reader who has encountered this bizarre book, but the current amazon.com Sales Rank (127,198) of the 2008 publication guarantees that a lot of people out there are getting to know it. That Sales Rank, and the readers' reviews of the earlier version on amazon.com, provide yet another sad piece of evidence that linguists are not succeeding in getting the word out to the general public about the nature of language -- in this case, the nature of language change.

The reason I'm familiar with Harper's 2002 version is that Mark Newbrook and I reviewed it for The Skeptical Intelligencer in 2004. Here's how our review begins:

In this curious little book Harper proposes a radically revisionist view of the history of the modern English language, continuing his record of promoting drastically nonstandard historical theories. Here he argues that Modern English, while related to Old English, is not descended from it (and that Middle English never existed, except as a highly artificial literary variety). Modern English, according to Harper, has been in existence since ancient times, and is in fact the ancestor of most modern western European languages. On page 134 he presents a family tree in which English, at the apex (or root), splits on the one hand into French and thence into Provençal, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and (in parentheses) Latin, and on the other hand into German, from which Anglo-Saxon springs. In Harper's schema, Latin was thus not the ancestor of the Romance languages, but was instead an invented language. A further upshot of all this is, as he himself emphasises, that the vast majority of etymologies traditionally given for English words are wrong.

You don't believe anyone could write such things? You think we were exaggerating to make Harper look silly? Not so. Here's the blurb you'll find on the amazon.com website for The Secret History:

In a hugely enjoyable read, not to mention gloriously corrosive prose, M.J. Harper slashes and burns through the whole of accepted academic thought about the history of the English language. According to Harper: The English language does not derive from an Anglo-Saxon language. French, Italian, and Spanish did not descend from Latin. Middle English is a wholly imaginary language created by well-meaning but deluded academics. Most of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary are wrong. And that's just the beginning. Part revisionist history, part treatise on the origins of the English language, and part impassioned argument against academia, The Secret History of the English Language is essential reading for language lovers, history buffs, Anglophiles, and anyone who has ever thought twice about what they've learned in school.

I have to confess that I did not enjoy Harper's `gloriously corrosive prose'. I also didn't enjoy the quotes Amazon gives from various newspapers about the book: "Unusual, funny, and provocative...This fascinating book is a useful investigation into the ways in which history is constructed and the dangers of unassailable academic truths" (New Statesman); "Mind-blowing, incredibly entertaining stuff....A well-written and entertaining book" (Daily Mail); and "The best rewriting of history since 1066 and All That" (Fortean Times). That last one reads almost as if they think Harper meant his book as a spoof; 1066 and All That is in fact a hilarious spoof. But I'm pretty sure Harper isn't kidding. I think he's serious. Faithful Language Log readers have seen other examples of credulous journalists, for instance here, so it's not a big surprise that the New Statesman finds the book "useful".

And at least some other readers are also convinced that Harper's onto something good. Amazon doesn't yet have any reader reviews on the 2008 publication, but here's how the three reviewers of the 2002 version assess the book on amazon.com: #1 (5 stars): "...one spicy little zinger of a criticism....It's shocking, incisive, sometimes profane, gratuitously insulting, sarcastic, gleefully perverse -- and ultimately, disconcertingly plausible. In the end, it just makes so damn much sense." #2 (5 stars): "Common teaching has it that the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain and forced the native population to speak the language we now call English....This goes quite against the evidence elsewhere, in which invading forces failed to have any significant effect on the native languages, other than a few words and phrases borrowed from the conquered peoples. ...He challenges us...never to accept that something is true just because a lot of people with letters after their name claim it to be true. Overall, a highly recommended read for anyone who's interested in the study of languages, or history in general." #3 (3 stars): "It's a needlessly insulting little book, and at least partially incorrect. Still, it's an interesting book because it may be partially right. I hope the right people read it, and manage to overlook the insults and errors."

I was curious about the publishers, so I checked them on the web, but they didn't offer any insight into the publishers' motives (if any, other than making money). Nathan Carmody, according to Google, is "A small publishing company specialising in unorthodox and revisionist works of an academic nature". That description is accompanied by a link to Nathan Carmody's website; following that link gets you only to a page entitled "WWW.INFAMOUSADVENTURES.CO.UK" -- where there's not a book in sight. Melville House Publishing seems to be a respectable and innovative publisher, but I couldn't find any mention of Harper's book on their website, presumably because they haven't updated the site since the book came out.

In any case, we find again that Harper and his ilk make "so damn much sense", while linguists, contaminated by Establishment connections (like, academic training and jobs relevant to that training), are hide-bound types blinded by meaningless tradition, and therefore sure to be wrong. (One might ask why the public is so ready to believe someone who asserts that "the experts" are deluded on a whole raft of issues but who offers not one single piece of evidence in support of his assertions; but one would be foolish to bother asking.) A consolation is that David Crystal, a highly-respected linguist whose numerous books written for the general public are all excellent, has a new book out with an Amazon Sales Rank of 57,081 -- The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left (Cambridge University Press, 2008). And Steven Pinker's 2007 book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature (Viking, 2007) is ranked at #1,078. So we don't have to conclude that we're fighting a losing battle with unreason.

[Update: more here.] Posted by Sally Thomason at February 17, 2008 12:08 PM