Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
English as a Lava Lamp
August 26, 2011 - By: - In: Language - 33 comments

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.

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