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Sat 5 December 2020

John Mitchinson on why we should celebrate the success of the flexibility of the English language which enables its richness.

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“The trouble with words,” Dennis Potter once wrote, “is you never know whose mouths they’ve been in”. This is true of language in general but it is particularly apt for English.

The one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that English isn’t ‘pure’: it is a magnificently odd mash-up, whose oddness carries within it a story of invasion, conquest and adaptation.

Historians still argue about exactly how many Angles, Saxons and Jute settlers arrived in mid-5th Century Britain but we do know that their languages were ones that came to be adopted by the Celtic peoples who already lived here. It makes some historical sense – in the vacuum that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Germanic invaders brought ready-made systems of political and legal organisation, trade, craft and animal husbandry. Business had to be done.

The Celtic languages did survive, pushed to the west and north and evolved into Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Scots and Irish Gaelic, but the lingua franca for much of the country that became England – ‘the land of the Angles’ – was what we now call ‘Old English’. Although basically a Germanic language, it absorbed some Celtic peculiarities of grammar and vocabulary usually connected to natural landmarks such as hills and rivers (for example Tamar, Teme, Thames, Tees, Test, Trent and Tyne all derive for Celtic words describing water).

The next great linguistic disruption came with the Viking invasions of the 9th Century. Here the balance of influence was inverted. The Viking settlers – mostly farmers – adapted themselves to English society, including the language. The linguist John McWhorter describes this process as the Norse invaders learning to speak ‘bad Old English’. Or put another way, they simplified it, ridding Old English of genders and complex Germanic conjugations. And, of course, they enriched it with vocabulary – including thousands of place names but also such quintessentially ‘English’ words as ‘anger’, ‘slaughter’, ‘skull’, ‘skin’, ‘weak’, ‘thrift’, ‘dirt’, and ‘muck’.

Vocabulary was also the most obvious legacy of the Norman invasion in the early 11th Century, with thousands of French words entering the language. Grammatical simplification also continued: some linguists go as far as calling the language that emerged – Middle English – a creole. One good example of the speed of change is in first names. In less than 50 years, William became the most popular boys name in England and, by 1230, an estimated one in seven men were called William. And it wasn’t just William. The top 14 names in England – all of them Norman – accounted for three-quarters of all names recorded. Despite, or because of, the brutal expulsion of almost the entire Saxon ruling class, the English people seemed quite happy to identify themselves with their oppressors. Out went Aelfwine, Earconbert, Hengist, Swidhelm and Yffi and in came John, Hugo, Richard and Robert.

One of the persistent complaints about English by those trying to learn it, is the gulf that exists between pronunciation and spelling. This is in part because the invention of the printing press in the late 15th Century coincided with a phenomenon known as the Great Vowel Shift, which was causing profound changes in pronunciation.

There are three main theories surrounding its origin: firstly, that the devastation of the Black Death led to a huge influx of economic immigrants to England from Europe which accelerated the move to a simpler palate of sounds; secondly, that the burgeoning English middle-classes wanted to sound more French (i.e. more aristocratic); and finally, that the conflicts with French and general anti-French sentiment inspired a move away from what was perceived as ‘Frenchified’ pronunciation in a kind of linguistic Brexit. 

What is incontestable is that modern English is rich, flexible and successful. It is the largest language by number of speakers, the third most-spoken native language after Standard Chinese and Spanish, and the most widely learned second language, with more than 60 states listing it as one of their official languages.

But, the claims that are made on its behalf – that it has the largest vocabulary (this is very difficult to compare meaningfully: the Korean dictionary has more than six times as many words) or that it is somehow uniquely ‘direct’ and ‘universal’ – are putting the linguistic cart before the horse. As Professor McWhorter writes, it is the geopolitical dominance of first the British and then the American empires that have led to English’s dominance, not some intrinsic quality in the language itself. 

Instead, we should celebrate its mongrel heritage and its willingness to welcome new words (about 2,700 were added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2019) but also remember the historical truth that the Jewish linguist Max Weinrich reminds us of: that, when all is said and done, “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.


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