by Ashleigh Lambert
Discussed in this article: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English (John McWhorter) [Gotham] ~ Curious Men (Frank Buckland) [McSweeneys]
This month, I took a break from reading fiction and turned my attention to figuring out why England is so endearingly, enduringly odd. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, by the linguist John McWhorter, is an illuminating account of how the history of England shaped the English language, and how the language continues to evolve today. Curious Men, a selection of essays by the Victorian physician and all-around eccentric Frank Buckland, provides a charming glimpse into parts of 19th century Britain you will never read about in history books – unless your history books happen to be filled with stories of giants and mermaids.
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is McWhorter’s ambitious attempt to reframe the story of English in terms of grammar. While etymology can illuminate some of the ways the language has changed, the history of English extends beyond mere word acquisition. McWhorter’s main goals are to track the changes in grammar that have set English on a different course from its other Germanic relatives; to suggest that these changes came from somewhere – namely, Celtic and Old Norse languages – rather than evolved spontaneously; and finally, to suggest that language changes are value-neutral. In clear, no-frills prose, he reminds us that much of what we take for granted about English is actually very strange indeed.
Here’s a simple example: “Do you want to see a movie?” “No, I’m reading a book.” This little exchange is so commonplace that we don’t even think about why we add the extra phrase “do you” to “want to see a movie?” We’ve become accustomed to using “do,” but surely the question would still be understood if we just left it at “want to see a movie?” And another thing: why do we tack on “-ing” to the verb “read”? Lots of other languages would leave “read” just as it is, without adding on the “-ing.” McWhorter argues that these quirks came to English by way of Welsh and Cornish, which, contrary to popular belief, didn’t simply disappear when Germanic invaders arrived in England in the fifth century.
McWhorter believes that too many of his fellow linguists take these peculiarities for granted; he takes issue with the fact that so many are content to provide mere descriptions of the language rather than search for explanations. “Languages,” McWhorter writes, “are no more likely to toss off massive amounts of grammatical features than bikes are to fall to dust” upon hitting a pothole. So if these changes are not spontaneous, where did they come from? What happened to English that caused it to lose some of the hallmarks of its Germanic roots?
The first round of changes – the “meaningless do,” as he puts it, as well as the –ing suffix to present tense verbs – came from the Celts. The second round came from the Vikings. Where the Celts added to English, the Vikings took away. Danish and Norwegian Vikings first came to England in 787; they spoke Old Norse, a relative of Old English. As they struggled to learn English, the Vikings sloughed off a lot of conjugation endings, but what’s more, their so-called mangling of the language helped do away with those seemingly senseless assignments of gender to objects that anyone who’s learned a foreign language has struggled with. McWhorter reminds us that these early English speakers had to make a lot up as they went along: there was “no Berlitz, no language instruction beyond someone on the fly telling you, ‘Here’s the word for…,’ and for the most part, not even any writing.”
The conclusions McWhorter draws from the story of English are twofold. First, he rejects the popular hypothesis that language shapes culture in any meaningful way. As much as we like to imagine that differences in language point to differences in cultures, McWhorter argues that there is just no valid reason to suppose that, for example, Spanish-speakers are more attuned to differences between the genders because they assign gender to objects. His second conclusion is one that I, as an avowed grammar snob, had a harder time accepting: that changes in grammar do not indicate a loosening of the moral fiber of those who speak the “new” way. But even I came around eventually to his way of thinking: if no one would argue that speakers of Old English were more intellectually advanced than we are, then we shouldn’t act as though modern slang and grammar are indications of our collective dumbing down.
As much as I enjoyed the startling insights offered in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, I was occasionally frustrated by the book’s plodding pace and McWhorter’s tendency to repeat himself. At times, the author seems to forget that he is really just telling us a story, and his story of how English matured gets bogged down in too many details and examples. In his eagerness to toss aside the old narrative about English, McWhorter occasionally gives in to the impulse to speculate further than he should; his conjectural theory that Phoenician shaped Proto-Germanic is interesting, but I’m not sure it merits a place in this generally well-researched book.
Curious Men by Frank Buckland is the latest offering by Collins Library, an imprint of McSweeney’s that publishes unusual out-of-print books. The introduction by editor Paul Collins notes that Buckland was a renowned eccentric who kept “a menagerie of bickering meerkats, otters, and scorpions” at his home, which he furnished with human skulls. A physician, fish hatchery inspector, and the son of a theologian, Buckland embraced the grotesque and the divine with equal measure.
In such tantalizingly titled essays as “The Human Frog” and “Mermaid Oil for Sale,” Buckland strikes a breezy tone as he guides his readers through the world of flea circuses, mummies, and conjoined twins. By today’s standards, many of the subjects aren’t that bizarre; an eight-foot-tall man probably wouldn’t be exhibited as a giant these days. The essays are short, and the author provides little commentary on his subjects. He seems to believe that, like a sideshow barker, all he needs to do is introduce the freaks and then get out of the way. And for the most part, this strategy works. He is most outspoken about those who make a living peddling curiosities, implying that the business of marketing oddities is even stranger than the oddities themselves. Ever diplomatic, he praises the entrepreneurial spirit of those who “endeavor to gain a scanty living, and transfer a few coins from the pockets of their richer fellows to their own.”
Admittedly, your life probably won’t be changed by reading about Millie-Christine McKoy, “The Two-Headed Nightingale,” a set of conjoined twins who were born into slavery and then sold to a succession of presenters. But Buckland’s obvious affection for his subjects makes Curious Men an engaging read. He never condescends to those he writes about; we’re all freaks in some way, he suggests, and would do well to remember that we’re more alike than different. Curious Men invokes a sense of wonder and appreciation for all the little mysteries that make life satisfying.