What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

via What the World Will Speak in 2115 – WSJ.

One of the English B topics we do is language diversity. The book we use has several articles arguing that English may or may not retain its crown as, more or less, a global language. Mandarin is often touted as a possible successor, but I remain sceptical because China has none of the cultural clout globally that America does. At most, Mandarin may become a lingua franca among nations with less reputable regimes which are nominally cosy with China.

However, I’m less interested in this particular debate than I am in what Dr McWhorter has written in his article for the Wall Street Journal. Let’s start with my lead above.

Two thousand years ago, English was the unwritten tongue of Iron Age tribes in Denmark.

Two thousand years ago, Germanic was a Sprachbund (which to all intents and purposes is pretty much any language with a minimal amount of dialectal variation). When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain in AD455, they were still speaking dialects of West Germ­anic, and wouldn’t be speaking Old English until sometime in the 7th century at the very earliest. Even then, the Anglo-Saxons could still have returned to the mainland Europe and have conversed with their continental cousins. St Boniface was the West Saxon who took Christianity to the German parts of the Frankish Empire in the middle of the 8th century (wikipedia).

Old English bristled with three genders, five cases and the same sort of complex grammar that makes modern German so difficult for us, but after the Vikings, it morphed into modern English, one of the few languages in Europe that doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects.

Five noun cases? Try four; and in the masculine and neuter, the nom­in­at­ive and accusative had merged. And if German has such a complex grammar, how on Earth do the Germans manage to acquire it at all? What about the Lithuanians, who have twice as many noun cases, or the Finns who have about four times as many? How do the Hungarians and Turks cope with all that agglutination? What about all those languages with noun incorporation?

As for the Vikings, they did have a lexical impact on English (e.g., leg, egg, skirt, they, their, them, though), but changes to English grammar came from within the language. The inflectional system of English was dying throughout the Old English period. Unlike Old High German and Old Saxon, Old English had reduced the present plural endings of the verb to -aþ, which was, in origin, the 3rd per­s­on ending.

The same applies to the effect of French on English. The lexicon may have been irrevocably altered, but the morphology and gram­mar of the language remained native. Whatever the source of continuous verb forms in Modern English (a feature which is not shared by any other continental European language), it cannot be Old Norse or Old French.1

Mandarin, Persian, Indonesian and other languages went through similar processes and are therefore much less “cluttered” than a normal language is.

A “normal language”? Does this mean that Mandarin, Persian, and Indonesian are all abnormal?

Even if much of the article is sound, it is statements such as these which undermine any pretension which McWhorter might have to academic rigour or merit.

Notes

1. Icelandic also has continuous verb forms, and such constructions can also be found in Italian, but have a much more limited scope. One possible areal feature of European origin in British English is the range of the perfect, which is wider than it is in American.

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