Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why English is so "Stupid"

As part of my freshman year at BYU, in Provo, Utah, I had the age-old conflict raging inside me as to what my major should and should not be. I began to Chemical Engineering, but I quickly realized that I was not, shall we say, "left-brained." Sure I did well enough on the AP Calculus AB test to dodge some college math, but I was in for a rude awakening when I realized that my mindset was not proper for anything engineering related.

So I switched focus, trying to cover all of my general classes before making a definitive choice as to what major I'd be pursuing in the near future. I decided to take my History and Writing classes together, along with Linguistics 330, an intro class to the Linguistics Major.

I immediately realized that I was born to be a grammarian. I loved English. I loved language. I just didn't know it yet.

Then reality reminded me that English Majors typically have a harder time finding stable employment. So I'm still unsure about my future, but what I did gain during Winter Semester was a sense of what I'm good at.

And what I'm good at is English. (Ending these last two sentences with prepositions is a big no-no in proper writing, but Linguistics will show you that, as long as its comprehensible, proper grammar is less relevant than the opinion of the I hope you will forgive me when I occasionally end clauses with prepositions). This led me to begin trying to sort out why English seemed so unusual compared to all the other languages in the Indo-European Language Family.

A bit of background. I read a book as part of my History 201 class called In Search of the Indo-Europeans, by J.P. Mallory. It was a very enlightening read, albeit not very entertaining. However, the book gave me a better sense of our language and the languages of the world.

According to Mallory, people began to notice some interesting things about their languages, way back in the days of early European exploration, when Europe was finally beginning to move up in the world and make a name for itself. The found that, not only were the languages of Europe unusually similar, but the European Languages were unusually similar to the languages spoken all across the Eurasian continent, from the Anatolian Peninsula, across Persia and the Iranian Plateau, all the way to the easternmost reaches of the Indian Subcontinent. Not only did they recognize modern similarities through comparative linguistics, but the uncovered ancient texts written in long-dead languages, each of which bore striking similarities to modern languages. (Only a few languages in Europe are considered unrelated to the Indo-European languages, likely "isolates" which predated Indo-European expansion.)

Various names were given to this group. A common one before the advent of Nazi racial ideology was "Aryan," a description of a mysterious ethnic/ tribal group to which all Europeans can trace some of their ancestry.

However, the Nazis claimed that the Nordic stock of Germany was the true and most pure group of Aryans in the world, having mixed very little with so-called lesser peoples of the world. Therefore, the term "Aryan" became associated with extremist racism and Nazi ideology and was subsequently abandoned in favor of "Indo-European."

More on

With regards to the Indo-European homeland, my reading of J.P. Mallory's book showed me that, as much as we can learn about them from the Proto-Indo-European Language (a language reconstructed using comparative linguistics, for which we have no actual written examples), we have almost no idea where they originally came from and what they even looked like (I know...prepositions at the end of clauses...sue me). But what we do know about them suggests that the Nazis couldn't have been more wrong.

Most evidence puts the Indo-Europeans somewhere out on the Eurasian steppe, a vast temperate grassland stretching from Europe to Siberia, closer to the Pontic-Caspian region. (This is based on very complicated comparisons of archaeological dig sites across the steppe which are compared with certain terms we can reconstruct in the Proto-Indo-European Language.) We know that the Proto-Indo-Europeans had a knack for breeding horses. This means that they had to be out in the steppe where horses were common. Horses were not as common in Europe, which had more mountains and fewer wide, flat fields. We don't think that the Indo-Europeans were blonde-haired or blue-eyed. In all possibility, they could have had brown hair, brown eyes, and skin complexion more typical of civilizations in and around the Middle East.

No, pale white Germanic Europeans science shows us, are quite a mutated little group of people. They are unusually pale by comparison to all of their contemporary ethnic neighbors. The blue-eyed gene is believed to have been a mutation by many scientists today. And all this blonde, curly hair is also very likely the result of specialized mutations that became prevalent in the populations of Indo-Europeans which settled in and likely mixed with the peoples of northern Europe.

So the point is that the Nazis were ridiculously wrong. Believe what you will about gene mutation, racial phylogeny, and evolutionary biology; but the facts show that the Germanic people weren't all that pure or special compared to their Indo-European cousins in other parts of the world.

The Germans, as it turns out, can trace their language back to Indo-European along the Germanic Branch. This sets the stage for our discussion of English.

I like to say that English is the abandoned child of too many languages. English went through several dramatic stages of evolution before it became the ridiculous language we know and love and argue about today. This might make you think about those lovely people we like to call "Grammar Nazis" on the internet.

Here's a funny video taking that phrase quite literally. You have likely seen it. If not then watch it (I warn you...there is blood in it)

If there is one group of  people that I am most on-the-fence about, it is Grammar Nazis, while I cannot stand when people correct one-another and then fail at grammar themselves, I personally feel annoyed with people who consistently use atrocious grammar anywhere on the Internet. The occasional mistake is fine, but consistent, incomprehensible grammar is just plain annoying and frustrating.

On the other hand, as a linguist, I feel that it is just linguistic evolution, and that I would be a prude to try and stop nature from taking our ridiculously complicated language and making it simpler to speak, write, and read.

As an introduction for the rest of our discussion here, I'd advise you to watch this great video:

Our language was once just another dialect of the Germanic peoples. Then they moved into the British Isles. They were called the Angles, and the land they settled was called "Angle-land," which we know today as England. They wrote in runes and used a vocabulary totally alien to their Indo-European cousins in southern Europe.

Meanwhile, a group of Indo-Europeans was settling in the boot-shaped Italic peninsula (modern Italy, if you didn't make the connection between the words "Italic" and "Italy." (This is related to, but not the same as, the Italic typeface, which originated in Italy, from which the typeface gets its name.)

These Italic Peoples became the famous Romans, speakers of languages related to Latin. The Latin language then became the dominant language for most of Mediterranean Europe (next to Greek, a completely independent branch of the Indo-European Language Family). Latin became Vulgar Latin, a more colloquial form of Latin, which then became the Romance Languages we know today as Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian, and a whole bunch of others.

Then along came the Norman French, who came to the Anglo-Saxon peoples of Britain with their French dialect known as Old Norman, which they then imposed upon the local population. This, along with a large number of Latin terms introduced earlier to Britain with the arrival of Christianity, led to a Latinization of Old English (Anglo-Saxon), transforming into a hybrid Italic-Germanic language we now call Middle English.

This is why terms of Latin origin carry a more "professional" connotation The Norman French introduced the kind of organization common in the Mediterranean, namely imperial governmental structure, political operations, religious institutions, and military concepts, all of which were then run by the Normans.

Meanwhile, the common people continued using terms like "see," "ball," "get," and other terms we now typically associate with childish, non-college language.

An interesting exercise we did in our Linguistics class as part of a guest lecture was transforming the following sentence into legal code.

"I saw the ball."

All of the above terms are of Germanic origin, meaning that they can be traced back to Old English, before the Norman invasions. We then moved some words, swapped some words, and rewrote the sentence into the following.

"I observed the spherical object."

But we didn't stop there. We wanted an even more high-brow sentence, something worthy of being stuffed into some kind dusty book in the library of a law school. By adding some passive voice, eliminating the subject and getting rid of the article "the" and the preposition "on" in favor of Latin equivalents, we arrived at the following.

"Personal observations were made visavi a spherical object."

Suddenly, we had legal code.

But the point of the lecture was to show just how much history has had an effect on modern perceptions of linguistic formality (look at the last few words of that sentence. They are mostly Latin, with the exception of "of"). He then went on to explain how, as a forensic linguist, he was often responsible for clearing up all the confusion that rises out of people who haven't received a college education being mistreated on the basis of legal contracts written in this kind of legal code.

For instance, prisoners filing for parole are given a large stack of papers, most of which as written in legal code. The average inmate has not gone to college, and occasionally he or she has not graduated from high school. Many did not learn English as their first language. To give them legal documents and expect comprehension is, based on the circumstances, unfair to them.

Now we all have our opinions about inmates and what they deserve, but fairness often transcends circumstance, and therefore this professor who spoke to us told us that he and others have been working to try and simplify legal documents and the language used therein.

English is a very hard language to learn because of its complicated origins. We can't even definitively place it in one spot on the Indo-European Language Tree because it has two relatively unrelated parents. English then went on to have a couple big shifts in both grammar and pronunciation, leading to one of the most complicated and ridiculous excuses for a language the world had ever seen.

And now it's the language of franchise for anything involved with the United States, and we love it as the language we grew up speaking. But many of us don't realize just how hard it is for non-native English speakers to learn our complicated language. Not even native English speakers are willing to learn anything about grammar. Our language is extremely complicated. We have a whole set of fancy Latin terms that we have to use in professional contexts, but then we go to our homes and our friends and use simple words of Germanic origin.

(Even "cuss words" can be explained this way. While no one would blame you for saying the word "defecate," you would get a lot of complaints if you went around saying its Germanic equivalent, the "S-word.")

But my main point is that we should be more careful when we tell people to learn English, or when we try to push the United States government to declare English as its official language. Remember how ridiculous our grammar is. Before you correct someone, even a little child making typical mistakes, first consider why they might be making that mistake, and what it reveals about our language as a whole.

For more on this, watch (If you didn't already click on the link above).

Or this is cool too:

Cambot Out.