John McWhorter – Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

John McWhorter – Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English

McWhorter’s larger thesis is both kindly and curmudgeonly. Languages change over time. This is fine; deal with it. In this book, McWhorter applies that philosophy to the history of the English language. How did Old English become Middle English? The big historical reason was the Norman conquest of 1066. By about 1100, a generation had passed since the invasion. The Normans, who by then made up as much as 10 percent of the population, had had enough time to have their linguistic impact, importing grammar and continental vocabulary along with themselves.

But the invaders also had to learn the Old English the natives spoke, and the resulting Middle English is a messy hybrid of the two cultures and languages as they met and mixed in a completely ad hoc manner. Everyone knows how difficult it is for adults to learn a new language; McWhorter argues that a big part of this change is, as with so many other things, simply adults screwing things up. Conquerors and natives also often intermarried, and simplifying language by mostly stripping it of elaborate verbal conjugations and gendered nouns helped these new families communicate with each other.

There was also some precedent for this simplified grammar in nearby Celtic languages, further helping matters. So if you ever wondered why English, for its many other quirks and complexities, is mercifully simple in those areas, that is part of the reason why. It is a mixture of cultural exchange, nearby precedent, necessity, and language’s inborn tendency to change over time.

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