Language is more about Meaning than Words

Tower of Babel
Saturday, 20th April 2019

I recently dived into an almighty row with a bunch of EU flag wavers replying to a message celebrating International Native Language Day. You see I’d like to celebrate it too, but the subtext implied EU citizens in the UK promote linguistic diversity. So let’s think this through. Once abroad mingling with the locals and other newcomers, emigrants tend to neglect their own language unless it’s widely spoken in their new country or they join a network of compatriots, in which case they’re not integrating. Native English speakers are seldom inspired to learn other languages these days, as they can get by with English alone in many tourist resorts and cosmopolitan cities around Europe. Indeed in some places if you try to speak the local language, your interlocutor will answer in English, either because this comes as second nature to them or because they want to flaunt their proficiency in a more prestigious medium of verbal communication. No self-respecting go-getter wants to be written off as a country bumpkin unable to converse fluently in the global lingua franca. Like it or not, globalisation tends to strengthen strong languages to the detriment of weaker tongues. Some government agencies may pay lip service to local heritage by insisting on bilingual or trilingual signs, but unless all languages involved are actively spoken across multiple domains of everyday communication, they act as little more than an exercise in public relations. Some may try to deny this reality pointing to initiatives to revive endangered languages like Welsh, Basque or Romansh or embracing bilingualism as a way to reconcile the rather obvious conflict between worldwide cultural convergence and a desire to retain our diverse cultural heritage. I’m the first to stress the benefits of learning more than one language to expand your intellectual horizons and escape the semantic prison of monolingualism. A distinction that may seem crystal clear in one language is not in another, e.g. in English we have separate verbs for feeling, hearing and smelling, all referring to different forms of perception, but in everyday Italian all three can be sentire. Naturally context usually makes it clear which sensory organs perceive a phenomenon. By contrast English has two catch-all verbs, get and set, which cover a vast semantic range, often only understandable in context, i.e. with reference to other words, e.g. I got it may mean I understood the message or it may literally mean I obtained it depending what it is, which is partly why native English speakers tend to specify the names of common objects and concepts rather than resort to ambiguous pronouns (e.g. wash the dishes or do the washing-up are preferred as set phrases rather than grammatically and semantically correct constructs like wash them where them refers to the dirty dishes your partner just mentioned).

Not just Etymology

However, many amateur linguists fall into the trap of focusing solely on etymology. It helps us trace the cultural evolution of a language community through words alone. Most linguists would classify English as a West Germanic language with a large Graeco-Latin vocabulary, acquired largely through Norman French, supplanting or supplementing Anglo-Saxon words. Between the 10th and 13th centuries Old English underwent a rather dramatic transformation from a close cousin of Old Low German with three grammatical genders, five cases, inflected adjectives and a much more flexible word order to a simpler but more analytical tongue by Chaucer’s time. We can’t trace the exact progression of this metamorphosis as Norman French and Latin served as the main vehicles of written communication after the new Norman aristocracy had displaced the old Anglo-Saxon ruling class. However, etymologists fail to explain why Middle and Early Modern English had so few Celtic loanwords, but has diverged morphologically from contemporary languages spoken in adjacent regions of continental Europe. One would expect that a synthesis of West Germanic and French, itself evolving from the vulgar Latin adopted by former speakers of Gaulish, a Celtic language, would yield a language resembling Flemish in syntax and semantics. Yet middle English diverged not just from its Germanic and Romance cousins, but from Brythonic too (Cornish and Welsh spoken as far north as Cumbria and Galloway) in discarding grammatical genders and most inflexions (except plurals and the Anglo-Saxon genitive). Modern insular Celtic languages have two grammatical genders and a VSO (verb- subject-object) word order, unlike English which has a stable SVO order, and always place adjectives after the nouns they describe, unlike English where they usually precede the nouns they modify. Until recently anthropologists have offered two explanations. First that old English prevailed over autochthonous Celtic languages because of its higher prestige. Second that invading Anglo-Saxons drove the Celts to the western fringes of the British Isles. Brythonic dialects survived in Cornwall until the late 18th century and in Cumbria until 12th century. However, examples of written Insular Celtic predate the earliest records of written Germanic. Although most literature in the Roman period was in Latin, a tradition that continued in academic circles for many centuries thereafter, Celtic inscriptions can be found over much of Western Britain, but not in most of what later became England.  Christianity spread to the British Isles between 5th and 7th centuries mainly from the Celtic West, another clue that the Anglo-Saxons did not culturally eclipse the extant Celtic civilisation, but genetic evidence suggests they did not supplant the local population either. In over 200 years Anglo-Saxon migrations from continental Europe would add around 5% to the gene pool. Analysis of the haplogroups extracted from the Y-chromosome DNA of skeletons reveals gradual migratory patterns responding largely to environmental changes. As much as 75% of the gene pool of the settled British population, before recent waves of migration since the 1950s, can be traced to settlers who arrived in these Isles between twelve and four thousand years ago. Subsequent migrants added to the gene pool and assimilated over a long and protracted period. In Roman times the ruling classes and their foot soldiers made up little more than 1% of the population. This begs the question: Why would a mainly Celtic-speaking people abandon their native tongue in favour of a newly imported Germanic language that lacked the prestige of Latin, while leaving few traces of the Brythonic vocabulary or syntax, something we’d normally only expect to happen in the event of large-scale ethnic cleansing, which is alas unsupported by the archaeological evidence?

Substrate Languages

Arguably languages do not so much disappear as fall into disuse as the descendants of the original speakers adopt more prestigious speech registers. It took vulgar Latin around 800 years to supplant Gaulish and the pre-Indo-European Vasconic tongues of Aquitane (related to modern Basque). This followed a process of gradual acculturation of illiterate commoners with the more erudite urbanites, who had already adopted Latin. We see a similar process today in many of Africa’s burgeoning metropolises where newcomers discard native African languages in favour of street slang based on a mix of the official language (English, French or Portuguese) but with morphology and phrases borrowed from their ancestral languages. In France Latin evolved into French and Occitan. In Iberia it morphed into Catalan, Spanish and Portuguese. Yet in none of these regions was Latin or even a closely related Italic language the dominant tongue before Roman colonisation. Moreover, in none of these regions did the Romans displace most of the indigenous peoples, who gravitated over many centuries to more prestigious modes of communication contributing to a radical restructuring of Latin’s successor languages, e.g. Latin had three genders, 6 cases and an underlying Subject-Object-Verb (SOV) word order, more akin to Sanskrit or old German than to modern Italian or Spanish. So Gaulish and Aquitane live on as substrata of modern French influencing not only its morphology, but its semantic range, e.g. the French penchant for counting in twenties with baffling forms such as quattre-vingt-dix for ninety has its roots in Gaulish and mirrors the old Welsh pattern of only having second tier numerals for twenties rather than tens (e.g. thirty one would be twenty eleven). Oddly most words of Celtic origin in modern English were not borrowed directly from Welsh or Gaelic, but came to us via French (e.g. ambassador, beak, brave, budget, car, cream, change, embassy, glean, gob, piece, quay, truant, valet, vassal etc.). So why would Celtic exert more influence on Old French than on Early and Middle English? Did Anglo-Saxon invaders succeed in persuading the natives to ditch their mother tongue completely where the Romans had failed? However, there is an alternative hypothesis that displeases Celticists and Germanicists alike: Most of the ancient tribes of Roman and pre-Roman Eastern Britain may have spoken pre-Indo-European rather than Celtic languages, which were later came into contact with tribes speaking a purported fourth branch of the Germanic family, once spoken in the Low Countries, thus facilitating the adoption of a lingua franca based on Anglo-Saxon, but with significant pre-Indo-European substrata. Modern Dutch and Flemish are based on Frankish dialects of West Germanic, which may have supplanted fourth branch dialects. More important surviving Old English manuscripts may well reflect an erudite variant of insular Anglo-Saxon rather than common English dialects. Contrary to popular belief, Roman and Greek scribes of the era did not usually identify the origin of the thousands of indigenous tongues they encountered so much as the tribes that spoke them and their relative mutual intelligibility. Greek scholas first applied the terms Keltoi to refer to tribes of Dacia, a region now straddling modern Bulgaria and Romania, long before the Slavic expansion. Besides the Celtic languages of the Western British Isles may have themselves displaced earlier pre-Indo-European languages, so both the Celtic and Germanic dialects spoken in the British Isles evolved atop substrate tongues spoken by illiterate indigenous tribes. This leads us to another bone of contention. Did the Picts of Northern Scotland and Ireland speak a Celtic language or did they, as some scholars suggest, speak a pre-Indo-European tongue? All we have to go by are place names and Ogham inscriptions. Scottish Gaelic, which prevailed in the Highlands and Islands until the Highland clearances of the 18th century, came to Scotland from Ireland between the 5th and 8th centuries. To complicate matters further the Picts may have borrowed much of their later vocabulary from Brythonic (precursor to Welsh) before merging with Gaelic under the rule of Dal Riata. A common mistake many linguists make, especially when only limited textual sources remain, is to analyse only the etymology of words that resemble cognates in other known languages. This often leads to false positives. Just because the word for king in language A has a cognate in language B does not mean that language A borrowed the word from language B or that both languages evolved organically from a common ancestor with gradual changes with pronunciation and meaning. It’s often more likely that both languages borrowed the word at different times from a more prestigious tongue that may have since lost its pre-eminence.

As we see today with the proliferation of English-like words, neologisms and trademarks in the world’s 7000 surviving native tongues, we cannot judge a language merely by the origins of its commonest words. English has gained over two thirds of its vocabulary since the earliest literary works of Old English, but before its expansion in the colonial era English evolved as the lingua franca of the peoples of England, Southern Scotland (where it was once known as Inglis before being renamed Scots when the Scottish aristocracy abandoned Gaelic), the Pale around Dublin and parts of Wales. A language is thus a speech code handed down through generations and shared within a community. Speakers are free to borrow words from other languages and integrate them creatively into their own, assigning new meanings and combining loanwords with other words to express new concepts and nuances. What matters most is mutual intelligibility and cultural continuity, providing a frame of reference for shared experiences and history. Cultural discontinuity occurs only through ethnic cleansing, mass migration or colonial repression of native cultures. However, unless a people is completely eradicated, their ancestral tongues are still likely to influence the way they speak their new language, especially before the advent of universal compulsory schooling.

The Quirks of Insular English

English syntax differs from its continental neighbours in a few important respects. Many scholars have explained the language’s rapid transformation following the Norman conquest by its demotion to a vernacular spoken mainly by illiterate peasants. However, why did this not happen to many other European languages, which were seldom written before the Renaissance. Latvian successfully retained highly inflected grammar despite only gaining a sizable literature during the Latvian Awakening of  the late 19th century.

  1. English has a rich variety of verb tenses with auxiliary verbs that convey important semantic distinctions between progressive and simple tenses, e.g. I play versus I’m playing as well between I’ve played and I played. Spoken French, Dutch, German and Northern Italian have all converged on a simpler range of tenses with a strong preference for simple forms for the present or near future and the present perfect (e.g. I have done) for past events. By contrast modern Celtic languages use continuous tenses for both progressive and simple actions. English distinguishes a general statement such as She plays the guitar, implying a habitual activity performed with some degree of competence, from She’s playing the guitar merely describing her current activity.
  2. English uses the present perfect for events that started in the past but are still ongoing. Other European languages always use the present tense unless the referenced event has finished, e.g. “I’ve been waiting two hours for the bus” means I’m still waiting. Otherwise we would say “I waited two hours for the bus”.
  3. English has lost grammatical genders and cases, but retains gender-specific pronouns referring to people, some animals and occasionally to personified objects (e.g. referring to a country, ship or car as she/her). This loss is not unique to English. It happened to Bengali, Armenian and Afrikaans too, but we cannot explain it simply by its temporary demotion to a vernacular or by the influence of neighbouring Celtic languages which have all retained grammatical genders.
  4. To maintain a consistent SVO word order, English uses auxiliary verbs for questions and negations, e.g. Did you wash the dishes? and I didn’t wash the dishes. In early modern English the main exception to this rule was the verb to have, e.g. “Have you a match?” and this form persists in many set phrases and more conservative and literary varieties of English. In modern spoken British English the possessive aspect of have is often emphasised with got (e.g. have you got a match?), while in American English the form “Do you have a match?” is more common. Both constructs ensure a regular SVO order in both statements and questions. The verb to be may seem an exception, but as an intransitive verb it never has a direct object, only a subject and a subjective complement e.g. Is John a farmer? Doesn’t need another auxiliary verb to remain unambiguous.
  5. English prefers possessive pronouns rather than the reflexive or dative possessor constructs common to most continental languages, e.g. “I washed my hands” translates “Ich habe mir die Hände gewaschen” or “Je me suis lavé les mains”. English also tends to specify possession much more often than other languages, e.g. “I rode my bike” is more colloquial in most contexts than “I rode the bike” (which would usually mean “I rode a previously specified bike”), but one could also say “I rode my sister’s bike”. The Anglo-Saxon genitive is firmly ingrained in colloquial usage, Martha’s bag rather than the bag of Martha (not usual in native spoken English), as it maintains the expected word order with modifiers preceding nouns.
  6. English stresses the distinctions between definite and indefinite objects as well as between known and unknown quantities. Thus “the women” refers to a specific subset of womankind identified earlier in the discourse, while “women” without a determiner refer to adult females in general. Likewise “the wine”, “some wine” and just “wine” refer to different degrees of specificity, “I like wine” means “I like wine in general”, while “I like the wine” may mean “I like the wine you just poured into my glass” and “I’d like some wine” just means I would appreciate an unspecified modest quantity of wine”, but does not carry the same emphasis as literal equivalents in other languages although it is broadly comparable to the French du vin or Italian del vino. In other European languages these distinctions tend not to be so important. French, Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish all have much stronger colloquial tendencies just to use the definite article, so “les femmes” may be both specific and generic.

The above aberrations from the continental European norm would suggest the enduring influence of substratum languages on the evolution of spoken English.

Neurolinguistic Programming

Psychologists have long been aware that the words and phrases we choose to express ideas can affect someone’s willingness to believe a message, follow an order or internalise a new concept. Large organisations invest billions in the art of gentle persuasion, not just in advertising, but in public relations, awareness raising and increasingly in management via neurolinguistic programming (NLP). If your boss calls you to her office for a wee chat, you may reasonably wonder what she wants from you. Is she about to sack you, ask you to work overtime or offer you a pay rise to stop you leaving? Rest assured that most modern human resources managers have learned not only how to impart unwelcome news, but how to deal with awkward employees, who do not take kindly to management bullshit, e.g. an HR manager may engage in polite conversation about your children’s progress at school and your last summer holidays and then thank you for your hard work over the last year, but none of this matters if the whole purpose of the meeting is to inform you of the termination of your employment at the company. If the HR manager had just said: “Hello, Mr Jones, you’re fired”, the gist of the conversation would be the same.

Neurolinguistic programming is about much more than marketing. It serves to reframe common events and concepts in a way that suits the interests of the managerial classes, in short persuasion. When you hear middle managers and politicians claim they did not get the message across to their target audience of employees, consumers or voters, it’s an implicit admission that their NLP techniques failed, not that their policies are wrong.

Although the mismatch between English spelling and pronunciation presents a challenge to many learners, the language has proven very versatile in adopting new ways to express common concepts without having to alter its core grammar or syntax. Yet when the transgender lobby wanted to instil in the public mind the idea that gender may be non-binary, they devised a new set of pronouns as alternatives to he/him/his or she/her/hers. One may now be known as zhe/zher/zhers or they/them/theirs. Spoken English has long used the second person plural when the sex of an abstract person is unknown especially when combined with someone e.g. “Someone has left their phone on the table”, but a sentence like “Kim gave me their key“ would be ambiguous in English. Indeed Canada has enforced their use via its controversial C16 bill. Professor Jordan Petersons correctly defined this as imposed speech, going against the Anglo-Saxon tradition of a free market of new terms which are voluntarily adopted, albeit, I may add, with a little help from the advertising industry. Should a central committee decide which pronouns we use to describe other people in our social group any more than it should adjudicate on the correct term for tablet computer (something most people call an iPad).

Many organisations now employ copy-editors whose remit extends way beyond correcting typos or amending grammar, syntax and style to focus the core meaning and narrative that language conveys and to expunge all politically incorrect references. For instance, the British Foreign Office urged the UN Human Rights Committee to change the term pregnant woman to pregnant people. Until recently, nobody would have been offended by the assumption that only women can become pregnant, a concept deeply entrenched in most naturally evolving human languages. In the early 21st century not only do some biological females identify as men or non-binary, but artificial wombs may one day enable biological males to experience motherhood. However, simply swapping old gender-specific terms for new neutral terms can produce some very hackneyed phraseology. New concepts, such as the normalisation of fertility treatment as a common means of procreation, have to be promoted via special interest news stories and celebrity endorsements, before the public at large can readily accept them. As Diane Ravitch detailed in her 2004 book, the Language Police, textbooks are being rewritten to reflect the postmodern obsession with political correctness that effectively closes our minds to a wide field of legitimate scientific inquiry.

One thing is for sure, while the diversity of spoken tongues is shrinking, language is evolving at an unprecedented rate both to reflect our rapidly changing human ecosystem and to alter our perception of reality.

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