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The Weirdness of English

Part 1 of 2



English is a mutt of a language, the bastard tongue of a bastard tongue, to use popular linguist John McWhorter's phrase. He was addressing the fact that the language you're now reading isn't just the odd man out of its northern European siblings, but that their parent language 'Proto-Germanic' is itself an oddball in the Indo-European family. No one paid much attention to language families until polyglot judge Sir William Jones gave a legendary address to the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1786. He noted that the similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin couldn't be coincidental and that they must, therefore, have a common root. (More tentatively, he suggested that the Persian, Celtic and Gothic languages were also derived from the same root.) His observation — not totally original but the first to tabulate the connection — kick-started the science of linguistics.

In a nutshell: Around 6,000 years ago, nomadic Yamnaya people living on the steppes north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in present-day Ukraine spoke a now-extinct language we call Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. They domesticated horses, used wheeled chariots, grew crops and spun wool. Starting around 2500 BC, they spread out east to India and west to Europe. Today, 2.5 billion people communicate using PIE-descended languages, including: Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi (in the Sanskrit family); Kurdish, Pashto and Farsi (Iranian); French, Spanish and Italian (Italic); Welsh, Breton and Gaelic (Celtic); Polish, Czech and Russian (Slavic); German, Swedish and English (Germanic); and some 30 more distinct tongues.

Proto-Germanic, the parent of English and about a dozen other languages mostly spoken in northern Europe, has several features shared by neither its parent (PIE) nor any of its siblings. In addition to being much simpler, especially in its abbreviated verb endings and lack of genders, Proto-Germanic uses fricatives. This is easier to show than explain, by comparing Latin (a "regular" PIE language) to English:

Latin P becomes English F (e.g. pater to father)

Latin T becomes English TH (e.g. tres to three)

Latin K becomes English H (e.g. canis to hound)

The P, T and K of Latin and all other PIE languages are voiceless stops. Try saying "p," "t" and "k," noting that your lips, tongue and glottis momentarily stop the airflow. Now do the same with the fricatives (as in friction) "f," "th" and "h." Notice that they're also created by your lips, tongue and glottis, but in this case, you only partially stop the airflow.

What caused the voiceless stop to fricative switch in Proto-Germanic? The generally accepted hypothesis is that it was due to speakers of Semitic languages (which are awash with those sibilant F, TH and H sounds) learning PIE before passing it on, imperfectly, to their children. This can also explain the simplified verbs and nouns of Proto-Germanic, typical of adult second language speakers. There's good reason to believe that these parents were Phoenician seafarers, as I discussed in my Field Notes column on Grimm's Law (Nov. 15, 2012). Meanwhile, speakers of other PIE-derived tongues passed on their language in the usual way, native-speaking parent to child, thus retaining PIE's original voiceless stops and complex verb and noun forms.

Proto-Germanic, then, is uniquely odd. But so is one of its descendants: English. Next time, we'll look at what is so weird about English compared to other Germanic tongues. Learn more at my one-evening OLLI class, The Lore and Lure of Language, at the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center on March 8, 6:00-8:30 pm. Register at 826-5880.

Barry Evans ([email protected]) will be at Eureka Books signing his latest anthology Revenge of Field Notes during the March 4 Arts Alive.

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