Friday, 2 January 2009

What We Say and How We Say It: Our Bastard Language Is a Thief and a Creole

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter was under the tree this year, and I’ve spent some enjoyable hours reading it. McWhorter’s unstated thesis is that English is a Creole language, with nothing pejorative intended in the phrase. What happened to English is that it was transformed when a prolonged wave of newcomers struggled to communicate with the people already living in England, dropping grammatical niceties right and left. The result of this simplification is a Modern English that does not routinely give gender to nouns the way every other language in Europe does, has eliminated the case markers that make German, Latin and Ancient Greek such chores to learn, and picked up some interesting features found only in Cornish and Welsh.

McWhorter is a brilliant young linguistic scholar who has spent much time researching creoles, the new languages which people create when invaders, immigrants or people otherwise thrown together must figure out how to talk to each other and to a larger community. He argues that what has happened to English (and perhaps to an ancestor language, Proto-Germanic) over time is not a simply borrowing of thousands and thousands of words, but more fundamental changes in the way sentences are structured.

Languages and how people express themselves is something I find fascinating. This year I also had the pleasure of reading Mark Abley’s books, Spoken Here and The Prodigal Tongue which also deal with the history of language and where language, particularly English, is going. Abley tells a good story, but there is more here than well chosen anecdotes and some remarkable little known facts. Spoken Here has an important political question as its subtext. Abley is an Anglohone Quebec writer and Spoken Here was written against the backdrop of Quebec politics. Francophones think their language is in danger, while Anglophones here jealousy guard theirs, but nowhere in this book does Abley mention this, I think.

Nor does McWhorter, an African-American, talk much about Black English even though he has been criticized for comments he’s made elsewhere. While Abley’s and McWhorter’s books can be read with pleasure by language buffs of whatever colour or place of residence, a careful appreciation of them requires a little parsing of them for their political grammar. Speaking (or at least understanding) the same language is essential for determining where we go from here.

By the way, McWhorter--like the cell phone novelists I wrote about a couple of days ago--apparently has nothing against heading toward a more electronic culture: his new book is available for down load as an e-book too.

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