Closeup of a typewriter with text "old but good"

Why English actually is relatively easy to learn (but not to master)

English is a (relatively) simple language to learn enough of to communicate (rather than to master) because it’s had so many non-native adults learning and using it.

The rules are relatively flexible, so — as you’ve likely experienced — we can often understand someone speaking in simple “broken” English. Try that with Russian. But — as you also likely know — it can take a lifetime to have some kind of English mastery, and even that’s no promise. If you want to understand why, you need to look into the secret corners of the 1,500 years of English language development.

That’s among the big ideas from “Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,” a 2009 book from linguist John McWhorter. I picked this up after devouring his 2016 book, both of which I read earlier this summer. (Read the laudatory New York Times review of this book. For context, this Economist story is a nice recap of what makes language difficult.)

I have a bunch of posts about linguistics.

This book’s focus on English is distinct from other linguistics books I’ve read recently about language generally. Find my favorite lessons from the book and a few related videos below.

Here are my notes:

  • Linguists care more about grammar (or “syntax” as the layman calls it) of how words are put together than about words and etymologies that change so much. For example, big macro historical changes transformed English with new words but, to the linguist, more importantly they shifted the grammar:
    1. Old English shaped by Germanic Angles/Saxons invasion in 400s
    2. Middle English shaped by 1066 Norman French invasion
    3. Modern English shaped by popular Latin writing among elites and other trends, like the explosion of written forms. (But also, hey, here are words from indigenous Americans that have entered English)
A grid showing Old English is from years 450-1150 AD; Middle English is 1150-1500 and Modern English from then on
A rough guide to the time periods linguists refer. For context, Shakespeare was born in 1564. Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ were written in the late 1300s.
  • The “-ing” progressive form of present tense (“I am reading”) is unique to English from other European languages (in French “Je mange” can be translated as both “I eat” and “I am eating.”) and that came during Middle English without any single clear reason. (That is how language works, with human inputs)
  • The English present tense is primarily the “-ing progressive” (present participle), as the bare verb is for habitual (“I read” versus “I am reading”), except for stative verbs like knowing, loving, having that are present (note we say “I love you” but wouldn’t say “I am loving you”). (p. 3)
  • English is odd for Proto-Germanic, the Celtic subfamily of Indo-European, with similarities to languages like Welsh and Cornish and to lesser extent Gaelic. Linguists tend to think that is coincidental but McWhorter argues English clearly mixed with these other languages on the English isles. (5)
  • English is a language that has a “Meaningless do” use for phrases like “Do you write?” and “I do not write” versus “I write.” (21)
  • For most of the relatively short history of writing (6,500 or so years), it was considered distinct from spoken language (150,000 years or so) but now we see them very related (34) Note that one reason the “Mona Lisa” is seen as influential is that subtle smile was the beginning of a movement to include more personality into art. Writing has gone through something similar.
  • Going from locomotion to a future marker (like “I will this to happen” representing an older use of the verb “will” and as recently as the 1640s, we’d instead use it as a future market, like “I will do this.”) (54)
  • Any grammar rules are simply a choice about locking in what is most common in a given time. For example, the idea of outlawing the split of an infinitive (is “to slowly go” worse than “to go slowly?”) and dismissing the idea of ending sentences in prepositions come from Latin influences. (64)
  • Why do people get angry about grammar? They’ve mastered the rules and don’t want others to cheat 68) “Elites make rules, laypeople break them and that’s how Latin became French.”
  • Words like “y’all” and “youse” are creations to allow for a plural second person pronoun like many other languages. (81)
  • Vikings are why we don’t have many verb conjugation endings, as McWhorter argues that Norsemen married English isle-native women and, as whenever many adults are learning a language non-natively, it gets simpler. (91)
  • The complicated history of the English isles, like Danelaw and its many languages help explain why Scotland and Ireland are so distinct from the English. (110)
  • “Linguistic equilibrium,” in which citizens speak two languages commonly in a society, (119) can make languages more complicated, whereas full adoption of  language by many nonnative speakers makes them simpler (121)
  • John McWhorter is no fan of the popular Sapir-whorf hypothesis of “linguistic relativity” that languages reflect their societies. (138) He spends a lengthy section describing that though lives and geographies impact vocabulary, it’s nonsense to think grammar is overly informative of a society’s values.
  • A classic example is the Australian aboriginal language of the Guguu Yimuthuu people that uses compass cardinal directions to describe place (rather than “to my right,” the speaker says “to the east of me”). But it’s no more telling than what we want it to be. (163) The hunter-gatherer Piraha people of the Amazon have no specific numbers, but their lives dictate language not other way around.
  • There lies a complex world of linguistics terms that extend beyond school-age grammar that I enjoy poking around, like various noun cases including dative and accusative (178)
  • One last argument from McWhorter, which goes a long way to explaining how complicated it can be to track early proto languages: Could Phoenician travelers to Germania been an early influence on Proto German that would later shape English? Given how long ago that was and how distant those places, it might seem unlikely but McWhorter makes a case. (195)

(Typewriter photo via Unsplash by Rafaela Biazi)