William conquers Harold and the English language. From Cotton Vitellius A. XIII.(1) f.3v.
John McWhorter explains that the English language has a number of unusual features which are artifacts of the language’s history involving the interaction of several different peoples.
English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isnâ€™t spoken, there is no such thing as a â€˜spelling beeâ€™ competition. For a normal language, spelling at least pretends a basic correspondence to the way people pronounce the words. But English is not normal. …
We think itâ€™s a nuisance that so many European languages assign gender to nouns for no reason, with French having female moons and male boats and such. But actually, itâ€™s us who are odd: almost all European languages belong to one family â€“ Indo-European â€“ and of all of them, English is the only one that doesnâ€™t assign genders that way.
More weirdness? OK. There is exactly one language on Earth whose present tense requires a special ending only in the thirdâ€‘person singular. Iâ€™m writing in it. I talk, you talk, he/she talk-s â€“ why just that? The presentâ€‘tense verbs of a normal language have either no endings or a bunch of different ones (Spanish: hablo, hablas, habla). And try naming another language where you have to slip do into sentences to negate or question something. Do you find that difficult? …
when the Angles, Saxons and Jutes (and also Frisians) brought their language to England, the island was already inhabited by people who spoke very different tongues. Their languages were Celtic ones, today represented by Welsh, Irish and Breton across the Channel in France. The Celts were subjugated but survived, and since there were only about 250,000 Germanic invaders â€“ roughly the population of a modest burg such as Jersey City â€“ very quickly most of the people speaking Old English were Celts.
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 â€“ 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 Englishâ€™s weirdness began with its transformation in the mouths of people more at home with vastly different tongues. Weâ€™re still talking like them, and in ways weâ€™d never think of. When saying â€˜eeny, meeny, miny, moeâ€™, have you ever felt like you were kind of counting? Well, you are â€“ in Celtic numbers, chewed up over time but recognisably descended from the ones rural Britishers used when counting animals and playing games. â€˜Hickory, dickory, dockâ€™ â€“ what in the world do those words mean? Well, hereâ€™s a clue: hovera, dovera, dick were eight, nine and ten in that same Celtic counting list.
Two linguistics professors recently contended that English ought to be classified as a Scandinavian language. (Norwegian) News in English:
Jan Terje Faarlund, a professor of linguistics at the University of Oslo (UiO), told research magazine Apollon that new studies show English â€œas we know it todayâ€ to be a â€œdirect descendant of the language Scandinavians usedâ€ after settling on the British Isles during and after the Viking Age. …
Faarlund and his colleague Joseph Emonds, a guest professor at UiO from Palacky University in the Czech Republic, believe they can now prove that English is a Scandinavian language belonging to the group of northern Germanic languages that also include Danish, Swedish, Icelandic and Faroese, spoken on the Faroe Islands.
Their research and conclusions are brand new and break with those of earlier linguistic professors who believe English is rooted in â€œOld English,â€ also known as the Anglo-Saxon language believed brought to the British Isles by settlers from northwestern and central Europe. Faarlund claims Scandinavians settled in the area long before French-speaking Normans conquered the British Isles in 1066.
Faarlund and Edmonds also contend that Old English and modern English are two very different languages. â€œWe think Old English simply died out,â€ Faarlund told Apollon. â€œInstead, the Nordic language survived, strongly influenced by Old English.â€
While many native English-speakers struggle to learn Norwegian, Faarlund believes itâ€™s no coincidence that Scandinavians, especially Norwegians, learn English relatively easily. â€œItâ€™s true that many of the English words resemble our own (in Norwegian, for example),â€ Faarlund said. â€œBut thereâ€™s more behind it: Even the fundamental structure of the language is amazingly similar to Norwegian. We often avoid mistakes that others (speaking other languages) make in English, because the grammar is much the same.â€
Scandinavian settlers, Faarlund notes, gained control towards the end of the 9th century of an area known as Danelagen, which forms parts of Scotland and England today. Faarlund stressed that â€œan extremely important geographic point in our researchâ€ is that the East Midlands in England, where he says the modern English language developed, was part of the relatively densely populated southern portion of Danelagen.
Edmonds and Faarlund also contend that sentence structure in what developed into modern English is Scandinavian, not western Germanic as previously believed. Both todayâ€™s Scandinavian languages place the object after the verb, for example, unlike German and Dutch which place the verb at the end of a sentence. Possessive forms can also be the same in both the Scandinavian languages and English, which also can end sentences with a preposition and split infinitives. While thatâ€™s sometimes frowned upon in other variations of modern English such as American English, Faarlund argues itâ€™s not possible in German, Dutch or Old English.
All this, he claims, boosts the similarities between Norwegian and English, for example, and the differences between other Germanic languages and English. â€œThe only reasonable explanation is that English is a Nordic language, and that this language is a continuation from the Norwegian-Danish language used in England from the Middle Ages,â€ Faarlund told Apollon. â€œWhy the residents of the British Isles chose the Nordic grammar, though, is a matter of speculation.â€