Words vs. Grammar: What Makes English English?

Discussed in this review:
Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English
The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English
Alphabet Juice

Amid the political post-mortems and the feel-good holiday fiction, this fall’s publishing season has produced an accidental microtrend: books about language, specifically English. It’s a weird glut, and likely random — after all, how much pop linguistics can the market tolerate? From Penguin’s Perigree imprint there is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages by the quite possibly insane Ammon O’Shea; from the linguist and conservative pundit John McWhorter, there is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English; and FSG offers not one but two entries, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English by Henry Hitchings and Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount Jr. As our language globalizes, we seem to be a moment of linguistic reckoning — what makes English English, and is it in fact as singular as we like to believe?

English, with its voluble vocabulary, has a history of inspiring monomaniacal devotion — just think of Scrabble fiends, or precocious spelling bee champs. Both O’Shea and Blount fit squarely in this camp: their books advance no overarching theory or history of language; they simply indulge their authors’ relish for the stranger possibilities of English. The two books have nearly identical structures — alphabetical chapters, each with a short introductory musing, followed by a tour of words starting with, say, the letter g, that happen to amuse the author. Think of them as the equivalent of Sesame Street, but for adults. O’Shea opts often for the Latinate (one of his better selections: “Cimicine Smelling of bugs.”), while Blount prefers the punchy monosyllables of Anglo-Saxon.

Where O’Shea is occasionally charming, Blount is almost always annoying. For his personal take on the word “arbitrary,” he offers the following: “Linguisticians assert that words are arbitrary symbols for the meanings they represent?But as a principle of English-language appreciation, at least, separation of sound from sense is audibly, utterly wrong.” Blount’s suspicion of semiotics might be justified but for the arbitrariness of his own logic. “As proof that words are arbitrary, linguisticians cite dog, which refers to roughly the same animal as chien or Hund or perro. Doesn’t dog sound like what the English expect from a dog? Doesn’t chien sound like one of those little French dogs, Hund a heavier or anyway more strenuous German one, perro a bouncy Spanish with growly r‘s?” In a word — no.

Where Blount and O’Shea are civilians (albeit erudite ones) traveling in the land of linguists, John McWhorter and Henry Hitchings are scholars playing to the crowd. Their books are meatier than the other two, more concerned with parsing history than with sifting through the alphabet. The histories they present, however, could not be more different. The history of English, as Hitchings recounts it in The Secret Life of Words, is the history of modern Europe. The cycles of invasion, conquest, and colonization that have shaped the last millennium are the same ones that shape the words we use from day to day. Or as Hitchings himself puts it, “English is, to an unusual degree, a place of strange meetings?Its history is a history of encounters — profound, lucrative, violent. Yet to those who know the language intimately, it has a strange power of alchemy, the capacity to transform whatever it touches.” Hitchings, it is safe to say, counts among those who know the language intimately. And not just the staid English of the academy, but all its manifold varieties, from the Francophilic English of the medieval court and the hybrid tongues found on take-out menus in Jackson Heights. What makes English different, in his appraisal, is its rare porousness, the way it accrues and mutates vocabulary with the new people and places it touches.

Hitchings’s tale begins with the colonization of the British Isles by the Celts in 2000 BC and ends with a glimpse of English’s globalized future. Each chapter, headed by a word of a different linguistic origin, highlights a specific moment at which English absorbed a slew of words from a new source. “Onslaught” is the story of Anglo-Dutch trade relations in the fifteenth century; “Genius,” a study of seventeenth-century word coinages during the blossoming of the English literary tradition. Hitchings seems to have an endless appetite for these etymologies, seeing in every word a chance to further understand how the way we communicate is wrapped up in our history. Though he is never so grandiose as to posit words as a window into the human condition (but then aren’t they?), there is a sense in his writing that our language, by answering to what he calls our “intellectual, experiential” needs as they grow ever more worldly, becomes a cumulative record of our collective consciousness. English, in particular, as first the language of British colonialism and then of American immigration, is perhaps more suited than any other tongue to document the narrowing of our world. His English, mired though its history may be in the legacy of violent conquest, is a pluralistic endeavor.

McWhorter, by contrast, envisions the history of English as one of linguistic exceptionalism — the rogue language of the Germanic clan. His interest lies not with words but with grammar, and where the Hitchings school of narrative is concerned, he is pointedly sarcastic: “Was it really all just about words?” he opens. “The grand old History of the English language, I mean. The way it is traditionally told, the pathway from Old English to Modern English has been a matter of taking on a great big bunch of words.” His retelling of the story of English is deliberately anti-etymology — there is an edge of bitterness in his sense that formally trained linguists have been left out of the party. Dismissing the “word fetish of typical popular treatments of the history of English,” McWhorter launches into a willful assault on the linguistic establishment (or at least those that have managed to escape from academia’s cloistered walls).

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is, though but little, fierce. Its central argument is two-pronged. First, McWhorter makes a case — apparently taboo among linguists — for the influence of Celtic grammar in English’s eccentric semantic features. As evidence, he turns to what he calls the “meaningless do” (“Do you like the book?” as opposed to the “Like you the book?” construction prevalent in all of its Germanic relatives) and the continuous present (“I am reading” rather than simply “I read” to denote an action in the present). Second, he reasons that the Viking invasion in the eighth century was responsible for lopping off all of our case endings. It’s an elaborate point, but the core of it is that intermarriage between Vikings and native Brits forced English into its simplified, least-common-denominator form. While his logic seems airtight — doesn’t it seem weird that the only other language to share these odd grammatical features happens to be that of our Celtic neighbors? — his combative tone often upstages his research. His rhetorical warfare seems a bit misdirected because, despite the glove he throws down at populist word fetishists, they are, in the end, his audience: McWhorter wants to draw the word-loving masses into the world of grammar.

McWhorter’s view of language is, on the whole, more perfunctory than that of the other three. Unlike the worshipful adoration of Hitchings, Blount, and especially O’Shea, all of whom find in the vocabulary of their native tongue a sense of almost mystical possibility, he denounces the notion that “a language’s grammar and the way its words pattern reflect aspects of its speakers’ culture and the way they think” (the inverse, essentially, of Blount’s perambulations on canine relativity). But even in his stern demurral McWhorter winds up joining ranks with his more word-struck colleagues. Taken together, these four authors, even as they differ, remain bound by a shared refrain: that English is, in some way, a rarity. Their books are a collective archeology of our language’s chaotic history, and the English they unearth — quirky, brazen, and above all, malleable — gives us reason to imagine that future will need even more such books to keep track of its ever-spiraling evolution.