Simanaitis Says

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AEON IS a not-for-profit digital magazine “committed to big ideas, serious enquiry and a humane worldview.” Founded in London in 2012, it publishes thoughtful essays, ideas and videos on all sorts of topics.

One of its essays is “English is Not Normal” by John McWorter, Professor of Linguistics and American Studies at Columbia University. I offer several tidbits here.

Among the world’s languages English is odd. It’s the only one, Prof. McWorter says, that encourages spelling bees. (Other languages spell it like it is, more or less, although I’d not want to say French, for example, is easy going.)

Unlike Dutch and German, or Portuguese and Spanish, English has no modern close neighbors. And, unlike many others, English is gender-free: There is no la plume nor gli asparagi.

Old World language families are shown evolving from an Indo-European trunk. Map by Minna Sundberg.

Back in October 2016, I shared a fascinating graphic of Old World Language Families. English lives at an end of a Germanic branch, but it ain’t that simple. It has absorbed influences from just about anybody ever invading the British Isles.

English has lots of Celtic influence.“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” are corrupted Celtic numbers, as are the mouse-running “Hickery, dickory, dock.” Early Celts said hovera, dovera, dick when counting eight, nine and ten.

King Harald Fairhair of Norway, c. 850–c. 982, as depicted in a 14th-century Icelandic manuscript Flateyjarbók. Image from ScienceNordic.

Vikings arrived later, and McWorter celebrates their killing off English gender, not to say certain numbers of the populace. The Vikings hung around to marry the womenfolk, though. They brought in some Old Norse words, but generally spoke bad Old English: They didn’t bother whether that cow took the feminine gender or not. It was simply the cow. As McWorter notes, “Life went on, and pretty soon their bad Old English was real English, and here we are today: the Scandies made English easier.”

Death and the word: William conquers Harold and the English Language, 1066. Image from “English is Not Normal.”

Then, in 1066, English as she was spoke got a big dose of Norman French through William the Conqueror and his pals. McWorter observes that the conquered evidently did the scutwork for the conquerors: The serfs’ pigs and cows (Old English words) were butchered to become pork and beef (French) at the lords’ tables.

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616, the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s preeminent dramatist.

By the end of the 16th century, modern English was evolving into what Shakespeare writ, when fellow playwright Ben Jonson said of him, “Thou hadst small Latin and less Greek…” That is, English at the time displayed erudition by tossing in bits of these classic languages.

This enriched English with what McWorter calls triplets in thousands of new words entering the language: “Help is English, aid is French, assist is Latin.”

He notes that triplets have cultural nuances as well. Consider the English kingly, French royal and Latin regal. “Note how one imagines posture improving with each level: kingly sounds almost mocking, regal is straight-backed like a throne, royal is somewhere in the middle, a worthy but fallible monarch.”

McWorter concludes that languages have “a long tradition of sunny, muscular boasts,” with Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev calling his native tongue “great and mighty” and the French considering their langue to be uniquely clear: Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français. That which isn’t clear isn’t French.”

So what’s wrong with le weekend, other than having to remember its gender?

I would really enjoy taking a class from Professor McWorter. I’ve already learned a lot from my first reading assignment. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Bob DuBois
    June 19, 2017

    Piqued by your column on the English language, I read Dr.McWorter’s article on the development of modern day English. Sure makes me glad I learned it as my native language, and not as a required course to fill a language requirement at some foreign university!

  2. kkollwitz
    June 30, 2017

    The more I learn other languages, the more spectacular English becomes.

  3. kkollwitz
    June 30, 2017

    This may suit you even to browse, so indispensable I bought an extra copy for my wife 30 years ago:

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