Friday, October 30, 2009

Our cool tongue

I'm not a linguist, but I dig 'em.

An example is David Crystal, a wonderful writer who really gets it in books like "Words, Words, Words." One of the neatest things inside the book is this appreciation of Emily Dickinson:

"One of the best poems ever written about words, to my mind, is by Emily Dickinson:

A word is dead
When it is said
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day."

(A post about Emily Dickinson is coming. Most of us don't get her; we should.)

But for now, is there an anti-David Crystal? Heh. Is there ever.

His name is John McWhorter, and the book in question is the popular-linguistics short book called "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English."

McWharter raises the question of why most linguists, like Crystal, don't get it about how English actually formed. Just as one example, think about the "meaningless do" as in "How do you do," or "Do you know what he is doing," or "Do you care?" It turns out, according to McWhorter, the Celtic (pronounce it Keltic) Welsh and Cornish tongues have the "meaningless do," which the Celts added to Old English, naturally, as part of the natural mixing of languages. No other languages in the entire world have such a dumb "do."

Later, the Vikings, a bunch of adult adventurers too old to easily pick up a new language filled with hard-to-learn inflections, simplified English because they couldn't quite figure it out. Their kids just copied the old man's bastardization of Old English! Gosh: We get Middle English. And soon comes Shakespeare!

I am simplifying McWhorter's book to the point of stupidity. Sorry. But maybe you'll buy it anyway! I hope so. It is fascinating.

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