John McWhorter explains the peculiarities of the English language — note, not why English is the bestest language of them all, but what’s so idiosyncratically bizarre about this language we native speakers all take for granted. I remember learning German, for instance, and wondering why they had all these annoying articles and declensions and confusing stuff that wasn’t like my language, instead of wondering why English had so many confusing oddities.
For instance, he explains how early on the collision between Germans and Celts produced a peculiar hybrid.
Crucially, their languages were quite unlike English. For one thing, the verb came first (came first the verb). But also, they had an odd construction with the verb do: they used it to form a question, to make a sentence negative, and even just as a kind of seasoning before any verb. Do you walk? I do not walk. I do walk. That looks familiar now because the Celts started doing it in their rendition of English. But before that, such sentences would have seemed bizarre to an English speaker – as they would today in just about any language other than our own and the surviving Celtic ones. Notice how even to dwell upon this queer usage of do is to realise something odd in oneself, like being made aware that there is always a tongue in your mouth.
At this date there is no documented language on earth beyond Celtic and English that uses do in just this way. Thus English’s weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues. We’re still talking like them, and in ways we’d never think of. When saying ‘eeny, meeny, miny, moe’, have you ever felt like you were kind of counting? Well, you are – in Celtic numbers, chewed up over time but recognisably descended from the ones rural Britishers used when counting animals and playing games. ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’ – what in the world do those words mean? Well, here’s a clue: hovera, dovera, dick were eight, nine and ten in that same Celtic counting list.
And then we get the Norse and the French barging in and weirding the language even more. But it’s still refreshing to see an article that talks about the accidents and contingencies of language without trying to rank one as better than another.
However, we might be reluctant to identify just which languages are not ‘mighty’, especially since obscure languages spoken by small numbers of people are typically majestically complex. The common idea that English dominates the world because it is ‘flexible’ implies that there have been languages that failed to catch on beyond their tribe because they were mysteriously rigid. I am not aware of any such languages.
What English does have on other tongues is that it is deeply peculiar in the structural sense. And it became peculiar because of the slings and arrows – as well as caprices – of outrageous history.
By golly, McWhorter sounds a bit like an evolutionary biologist there.