English as a Lava Lamp

by Translation Guy on August 26, 2011

It’s the Vikings who trashed English. Not just the English people, with all that raping and pillaging back in the day, but the actual language itself, says Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, author of What Language Is and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. As languages go, English is pretty simple minded. No T-V distinction (polite pronouns such as “Tu” and “Vous” en français), no gender, etc—far less complex than most any other language.

McWhorter blames it on Viking ESL deficiencies. “Those people came speaking something that wasn’t English. It was Old Norse. And there were no Berlitz courses to teach them Old English . . . so they learned it. They learned it badly. And one of the first things that would have gone was these pesky genders. [Who cares whether a fork is la feminine or le masculine? The Vikings just didn’t give a damn.] And so next thing you know, English became this user-friendly language. . . . And here we are speaking it today.”

The happenstances of history shape language, just as convection currents in lava lamps float hot balls of wax into an infinity of not-quite random globs of wax. No surprise to regular readers that as a kid, and later right up until rehab, I found lava lamps hypnotic, and still find prescriptive grammar idiotic. It used to drive me nuts when I was a speechwriter for Japan’s Foreign Ministry when those diplomats would bust my chops about split infinitive and other fabrications of Victorian-era grammar police with too much time on their hands.

So McWhorter’s view of language as something not carved in stone, but rather a hot ball of wax tossed off among speakers in constant search of their own individual language of identity makes perfect sense.

“Some of the changes [in languages over time] are driven by the fact that there is social identity. . . . People split off into their groups, and changes will be different in one group as opposed to another group. And then certain groups acquire a certain dominance in society. And, next thing you know, people are following their lead.”

“And in this case I don’t mean rich white people. I mean that in society now, especially in America, on the popular level it’s black English—or Ebonics as many people are calling it—which is the coolest way of speaking. And now it’s popularized especially through hip hop.” Yo, I can get down with that! (Example of the Ebonics variant, used by old White Guys, in case you were wondering.)

So as language users, we pick modes of expression and dialect, both consciously and unconsciously as part of the performance piece that is our life. You can listen to this on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Thirty minutes long, but a pretty good interview, at least the parts I listened to. Also, since McWhorter is at Columbia and has a book to plug, I think I’ll be able to get him down here for an on-camera interview when we finally start our video effort and when his publicist sends me a copy of the book to read.

And which leads slip sliding to my next post on the influence of popular culture on the formation of identity, featuring Gary Cooper and Bette Davis, with a cameo by my favorite journalist, James Fallows.


  1. Wilber says:

    McWhorter is really great.

    A teeny quibble or two. (1) When you do read McWhorter’s “…Bastard Tongue” book you’ll learn that the Vikings’ language, related to Old English, had grammatical gender similar to OE, along with other similar grammatical complexities. So it wouldn’t have been that they “didn’t give a damn”; speaking their own language among themselves, after all, they would have observed all the gender rules. It was the clash of Old English and Old Norse that led eventually to the decay. I’m oversimplifying of course; read McWhorter.

    (2) In the same book the author also explains in detail how the Welsh (Celtic, non-Germanic) strongly influenced the evolution of English syntax – and not necessarily to simplify it. Consider the complex structures of BE + -ing (e.g., “we were having a good time”; I’ve been meaning to…”; “the kids are traveling this summer”; the faucet is leaking”; and the like. OE didn’t have them, neither did ON, nor do any of the other modern Germanic languages. Welsh did and does. Learners of Modern English have a hard time mastering them.

    • Ken says:

      I got to read the book. Thanks.

  2. anna says:

    good one!

  3. Like in your previous blogs, the main idea seems to be that language is shaped by history and culture, and in turn, culture and history are shaped by language!

  4. Luis Stanton says:

    English is very ‘user friendly’, but I think it is history, politics and economics that have determined its’ dominance in the world.

    • Ken says:

      As China rises, will Chinese rise too?

  5. Juanita Lin says:

    I do like the fact that our english is so simple. I am tired of trying to learn languages with impossible verbs, masculine/feminine distinctions, too many consonants together, and super long words. We should just be thankful for what we have!

  6. Jeff Spanke says:

    Of course history shapes languages. Look at any colonized nation’s history and watch as the languages change. For better or for worse.

  7. Samuel says:

    Looks like I may need to read John McWhorter’s book. Have you read it yet Ken??

    • Ken says:

      I’m waiting for the movie…

  8. Olivia says:

    Haiti’s Creole language is a great example of how history has transformed language. A mix of French and African dialets, it is raw, simplified, leaving you with a sense of something missing.

  9. Becky Kay says:

    Fascinating to see how the “black English” is the cool way to talk. I never thought of it that way but you are right on.

  10. Babycake says:

    As a non-native Engish speaker, I found it quite difficult to learn because of all of the exceptions to the grammar rules. It may be simple in some ways but so complicated in others.

    • Ken says:

      Spelling is the pain in the ass for me.

  11. Katherine says:

    Great. Now we are accepting that bad English is just part of our ‘evolution’ and does not need to be improved upon?

    • Ken says:

      Bad English is the improvement.

  12. language is organic, changing with culture, much like anything else in nature…

  13. Je suis contente que je parle en Francais! :)

  14. Frances Lamb says:

    I would be interested in reading about the changes of the French language from France to Canada. I have travelled to France and the difference is quite dramatic. Not only in accent but also in words used and manner of speaking.

    • Ken says:

      That’s a great idea for a post, Frances. I just got back from Quebec and no one would give me a straight answer.

  15. your choice of writers is great Ken, I always enjoy your posts!

  16. Teresa Horne says:

    For the sake of preserving the English language we should really try hard to teach proper English to students, and sinchronize all of the different dialects/accents.

  17. Tom Kaplan says:

    What is the difference between a dialect and a way of speaking like Ebonics? (or is that considered a dialect?)

  18. Alvin Rouse says:

    Why is it that the English in England hasn’t suffered as much damage as the American counterpart?

    • Ken says:

      I’m not sure the Brits would agree with you on that one, Alvin.

  19. interesting analogy with the lava lamp.

  20. re: Wilber Wow you do know your stuff! Thanks for adding the extra information!

  21. Connie Neal says:

    Where do you see the English language in 100 years? Just curious.

    • Ken says:

      Frankly,I don’t expect to see it at all in a 100 years. My arthritis is making me pessimistic, I guess

    • Ken says:

      From six feet under? Is this a trick question?

      • Mark Friebe says:

        LOL, classic Translationguy!

  22. Jeb says:

    I speak several languages and I think English is one of the most difficult languages to teach as it is so inconsistent. I think your comparison to a lava lamp was great!

  23. Stub says:

    Nice post. Thanks for sharing.

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