Sunday, July 17, 2011

Why Do We Say "Do?"

At any given time I'm sampling at least two books that aren't on the "Currently Reading" list on the sidebar of this blog. The latest is John McWhorter's Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. One of the quirks of our language that he discusses is what he calls "meaningless do." Think about it: most of our uses of "do" mean nothing. In the sentence "I do like to swim," do adds emphasis, but "I like to swim" says more or less the same thing. In the question "Do you read a lot?" 'do' adds nothing. In other languages the question would be asked, "Liesst du viel?" (German) or "Lees mucho?" (Spanish) both meaning "Read you much?" which says essentially the same thing.

Another oddity of our language is the use of -ing verbs. Other languages have an equivalent construction, but English is one of the few languages that uses the -ing form (i.e., the present progressive, also considered a sort of verb-noun hybrid) of a verb to say This is what I am doing right now. Since I speak English, if somebody were to ask me what I'm doing as I'm typing on my laptop in my neighborhood cafe, I would say "I'm writing." If I were a Mexican typing on my laptop in a cafe in Mexico City or Guanajuato, I would say, "Escribo" (I write). Similarly, if I were a French speaker pecking away on my laptop in Montreal or Lyons, I would say "J'ecris."

McWhorter ponders why English is so odd in this respect, and in doing so he also tackles head-on one of the most absurd (and unquestioned) assumptions of English history. The area we now call England enters many history books as the Roman province of Britannia after being conquered by the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD. As Roman power waned in the following centuries and the Roman Empire was under constant attack by peoples such as the Germans, Huns and Visigoths, the Emperor Honorious decided the best way to defend the empire was to concentrate his armies on a somewhat smaller area of territory. In other words, the Romans left Britain, which was now defenseless against attacks from peoples from north-western mainland Europe: the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The result of these invasions was a society in much of what is now England speaking a Germanic language called Anglo-Saxon with its own distinctive laws and culture, and people in Wales and Cornwall speaking Celtic languages descended from "British," the common language spoken by the Celtic inhabitants of Britain who were there when the Romans arrived (and who saw them leave). The people of Wales and Cornwall, needless to say, had their own distinctive laws and culture. Historians have mostly assumed that the Germanic invaders exterminated most of the Celtic inhabitants of what is now England, the survivors being pushed into the hinterlands of Wales and Cornwall. However, that assumption doesn't take into account one basic fact: before the twentieth century, with its repeat-firing guns and gas chambers, genocide was extremely labor-intensive work. The one exception was the European conquest of the Americas, in which the invaders brought diseases to which the natives had no immunities: completely unintentional biological warfare.

In other words, most historians of England have assumed that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived in enough numbers to kill, one on one, by sword or axe, the vast majority of the natives of what is now England. That's ridiculous. When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico and Central America in the sixteenth century they had primitive firearms and the unintentional help of smallpox, but even today (in spite of the deaths of millions of natives) the Mexicans and Central Americans of indigenous descent vastly outnumber those of Spanish descent. The logical conclusion is that the original, Celtic inhabitants of Britain survived under new rulers and ultimately adopted their conqueror's language.

But before they became culturally assimilated by the Angles and the Saxons, they seem (according to McWhorter) to have put their mark on their conquerors' language. Interestingly, what other languages besides English have the "useless do" and use the present-progressive construction to express the present tense? According to McWhorter, only two: Welsh and Cornish, the languages of the people who were supposedly wiped off the map and pushed into the corners of Britain. In Welsh, the word "nes" means do (or did). So if you were asked in Welsh if you had opened the door (and you hadn't) you would say, "Nes i ddim agor" ("I didn't open") instead of "I opened not." And in Cornish, if a friend of yours is shopping at the farmers' market and somebody asks what she's doing, you say, "Yma hi ow prena hy losow" ("She is at buying her vegetables")—as if buying is some kind of condition she's in. In Welsh, if your daughter Mary is practicing for choir and someone wants to she's doing, you say, "Mae Mair yn cynu" ("Mary is in singing").

Now I mentioned that these constructions don't show up in written Anglo-Saxon (charming sample of which at left). So it's fair to ask, if English got these constructions from Celts wouldn't they have shown up in written Anglo-Saxon, given that Anglo-Saxon is the predecessor of Modern English? McWhorter's got a good answer for that: think about how much difference there is between how people talk and how they write (at least before texting and tweeting). Now think about how much greater that difference would be if, say, only a small percentage of the population could read or write? Furthermore, for about 150 years after the conquest of England by French-speaking Normans, most writing in England was done in Latin or French—Anglo- Saxon more or less disappeared. But during that time, the language spoken by most the population England was changing into a hybrid of French and Anglo-Saxon now known as Middle English. And when the first Middle English documents were written, what curious grammatical constructions appear?

Take a wild guess....

This book is utterly fascinating. More later.

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