Monday, November 30, 2009

Cunning Linguists

Oh, I know what you are thinking. You think this is going to be a cleverly disguised double entendre filled screed about a certain subject (which, if you were Irish, and practiced at home alone, might be called "aer lingus"). Well, you are wrong! Although, the fact that you are wrong does not preclude discussion of this really fun little topic at some later date...

You know, as a science fiction, and science, and techno (non practicing) geek, I like to talk about certain things. And I've finally noticed that a common of interest of mine is origins. Why are things the way they are? We are told the activity of Science with a capital S does not cover Why questions, only How questions. But the answers to How questions usually rule out a lot of truly stupid Why questions. 

So, why do we speak the language we speak? Why English? Why English as it is spoken?

Well, there are any number of great books on linguistics out there, and I could just parrot them. But, best if you read them yourself, if interested. John McWhorter comes to mind immediately. His book "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English" is a worthy read, and actually contains a number of informed historical suppositions that I happen to agree with (and I leave it to you, gentle reader, to read the book to find out what they are).

Anthony Burgess, most famous as author of "A Clockwork Orange", provides informed entertainment in the books "Language Made Plain", and "A Mouthful of Air". One of those books, I can't remember which, includes a fucking wonderful treatment on the entomology and use of the word "fuck".

Then, of course, there is the legendary Joseph Greenberg, who through typology and genetic classification, almost single-handedly traces all of our language back to that most ancient Mother Tongue spoken, perhaps, some 9,000 - 10,000 years ago, but probably much, much more ancient. His is a truly heroic performance of drudgery and tedium, in tracing common word roots. Reading Greenberg is also an excellent cure for insomnia.

Genetic classification, did I say? Well, not classification, as in human genes, but as in common languages, and sometimes, by implication, common cultures. The interesting thing, though, and this may end up going on a tangent, is that there is practically no connection between language, culture, ethnicity, nationality, and your actual genetic origins. Short example? A lot of people in America speak English and are called Americans. Some of them, around 15% of the population, are African-Americans. I doubt that many of them have much in the way of English ancestry. True, you would be hard-pressed to find individuals of purely African descent. But on the whole, it is safe to say that Americans descended from individuals of the Involuntary African Diaspora could in any way say "Oh, we're English", the same way some people of Pilgrim stock are wont to do.  

Anyway... Years ago, I participated in the National Geographic Genographic Project. I swabbed some tissue from my cheek, paid a hundred bucks, and had my DNA analyzed by them. They sent back a neat little info pack on my genetic history, and it also had a little map tracing the peregrinations of  my ancestors all the way back to our common origin in northeast Africa some 60,000-70,000 years ago. (Which makes me, technically, an African-American). 

The most recent branch of the human family that I belong to (going by genetic mutations) could be termed "Northern Barbarian" . Which is to say, that group of people who eventually settled in the Baltic area, including Northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. You know, Viking types.

Well, some of my distant cousins, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, eventually moved from the southern part of Denmark over to England, and took their language and culture with them.  The original paleolithic inhabitants of the British Isles, which is to say, Irish, Welsh, Scots, and, yup, the majority of English, did not speak English. They spoke something else (possibly Celtic, although the term did not exist prior to the late 1800s, and that's another story). And then, a bit later, some of my closer cousins from Scandinavia, stopped by England for an extended stay, and changed English a bit more - simplifying the grammar, and adding some new vocabulary (like the big C-bomb word is from us Norwegians, and you are welcome). So, you Pilgrims don't even speak your own language!

Of course, English is not my own either. Because we Viking types, in turn, are descendants of  the original paleolithic inhabitants who occupied Northern Europe once the glaciers departed a mere (mere!) 5,000 years ago. But English, being part of the Germanic and proto-Germanic language family, was brought into Europe along with the whole Neolithic cultural package of farming, domesticated animals, and rectangular-framed houses, by migrants from the Balkans, the Hungarian plain, and ultimately Anatolia (modern Turkey).  

In fact, none of "my" myths and legends (Norse mythology) is my own, or at least not most of it. The olde triumvirate of Odin, Loki, Thor, are fairly recent gods of an iron-working pastoral culture. (Thor, the blacksmith with his blackened face and red, fiery eyes, Odin, the crazy wind of the bellows god, and Loki, the mischievous fire god of the forge, in case you are wondering). 

Well, I've lost the thread now. What was I talking about? Origins. 

I guess all of us, in one form or another, have lost track of our origins. But, you have to admit, it's rather amazing that linguists and folklorists have, through patience and plodding, recreated as much as we have.


  1. John, I'm just a dumb Florida girl. You expect me to follow all those difficult concepts and hard words? I had to stop three times and get my dictionary.

    But I do kinda have a crush on the way you write. Thanks for your comment today at Casa Hice - and for Following! Thrilled to have you. And I promise... what your blog lacks in substanceless nonsense, mine will most certainly make up for.

  2. Alix, if I made you look in the dictionary today... then my day has not otherwise been a complete waste of time. I just may end up writing about science stuff all the time. If so, I promise not to "dumb down" my posts, but I do promise to try to spend more time to make things a bit clearer, hopefully.

  3. Well, I thoroughly enjoyed this little ramble. It's a fascinating subject, both of language and human derivation. I'm gonna have to send my spit off and see wherein I have rambled, or rather all the people that make me me.

  4. Intriguing subject. Both my husband and I have participated in the Family Tree DNA projects, with his testing being more extensive than mine. I mention the National Geographic project in one of my previous posts.