Having now spent the past four months back in England, I’m rapidly becoming reacquainted with the kind of linguistic arrogance which initially amused me, then wearied me beyond measure after I first set foot upon Britain’s shores some thirty-odd years ago.
If I had a Pound for every time I’ve heard such gems as “It’s Tom-Ah-Toe, not Tom-Aye-Toe.” or “It’s called English for a reason. We had it first.”, all my Pounds would be worth considerably less than prior to the Brexit referendum… but that is another story.
Suffice it to say that over the past couple of weeks I’ve encountered an unusual density of linguistic Trump Cards, asserting that British English has the best words, and American English is nothing but a poorly spelled sub-genre employed by the semi-literate. Such statements are, of course, utter fallacy, based upon the unique type of disdain only blissful ignorance can instill, as even a smattering of knowledge on the subject of linguistic evolution will amply demonstrate.
With this firmly in mind, I’ve decided to put together a brief “Self-Defense Resource” for all my International English Friends. Using this you’ll be able to befuddle Logographic Nazis with ice cold facts before securing your escape, next time you’re accosted by one of these individuals
First and foremost, it must be remembered that “English is nothing but a Sub-Germanic Dialect.”
Yes, it’s actually true, and this fact alone is enough to drive “Homo Britannicus” stark raving insane, since Germany is of course “The Ancient ENEMY¹”. This statement should therefore be rubbed into your antagonist’s face at every opportunity, as it alone is enough to raise his² blood-pressure to critical levels in an instant.
ALUMINUM… Don’t you love the way those syllables just slip off your tongue?
Yup, the word is actually spelled differently in American. I’m not going to call it “American English”, since I would then be forced to call its European version “Germanic English” or possibly “Germlish” by extension, on account of it being a “Sub-Germanic Dialect”.
But³ in any case, I’ve wandered off the track, so to speak. Let me therefore re-board my train of reason before I lose the rails entirely…
A brief History of Sub-Germanic Dialects…
which isn’t nearly as boring as it sounds at first.
I began to research this subject after first encountering the Canterbury Tales some thirty-odd years ago. During my initial reading I noticed how Middle English shared far more similarities with my Native Germanic Dialect (Alemannisch) than High English shares with High German. Given the nature of this post, it is perhaps needless to say that this subject specifically – and linguistics in general – have fascinated me ever since that time.
To begin understanding the evolution of English, one first needs an introduction to the “Indo-European Invasion”.
In a nutshell, the Indo-European linguistic history charts the spread of a warlike tribe across Eurasia, from its original home somewhere north of the Caspian Sea. Fighting with new technologies – commonly accepted to be chariots – this tribe and its descendants rampaged their way across Europe and east into Asia, subjugating all who stood in their way, raping their enemies’ women-folk, and spreading their seed, as well as their language as they went⁴. Ultimately only the Himalaya Massif was able to curb their ceaseless advance, as all-wheel drive was not yet a standard chariot feature in those days. This invasive/linguistic barrier is attested by the fact that any language east of the Himalayas bears no relation whatsoever to those west of that range.
The Linguistic Floodgates, thrown wide-open…
The first serious inkling that all Eurasian languages apparently share a common ancestry emerged back in the 1780s, when classical scholar William Jones⁵ went east to undertake a study of Indian history. While exploring the sub-continent, he noticed that a great many Sanskrit words bore an uncanny resemblance to certain ancient Greek and Latin words. This, in turn, led him to hypothesize that these languages must have shared a common root at some point in the distant past.
During the next couple of centuries, various scholars carried out a range of differing research on the subject, reaching similar conclusions. The 20th Century Archaeologist J.P. Mallory further built upon this research while producing his own book on the subject, which is now widely considered to be one of the definitive works on the Indo Europeans and their lasting linguistic legacy.
Overall research indicates that a dominant–proto-language was commonly used in the Indo Europeans’ homeland, some six thousand years ago. This language was then spread across the entire Eurasian landmass through the medium of invasion, since the Indo Europeans’ god appears to have been the Father of all Warmongers. If you picture “The Kurgan⁶” from “Highlander”, you’re somewhere in the ballpark.
Blended like cheap Whisky…
The medium of violent conquest is a crucial point of this history, because the places being invaded already featured their own, defined languages, which were forcibly commingled with their invaders’ as the time of occupation lengthened. And so, as Kurgan proto-language gradually contaminated the tongues it had subjugated, a few branches began to spring from its main language tree.
According to linguists, even as late as the 1st century AD, only a handful of tongues were spoken across the entire Eurasian landmass, and only during the past two millennia did their various sub-dialects gradually morph into defined languages, once again, mainly through the medium of invasion. A perfect example of this can be seen by what happened when the Romans expanded northward⁷, especially by looking at the Romance languages and the Germanic ones [including that well-known Sub-Germanic dialect, English].
Speaking linguistically, the Romance languages constitute a direct evolution from Latin, via a supposed intermediate stage called Vulgar-Latin, hypothetically introduced following the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century. By contrast, the Germanic languages were sitting on a completely different branch of the Indo European language tree, only marginally contaminated by Latin. Presumably this lasting lack of contamination can be further traced to the greater linguistic incompatibilities posed by trying to merge already substantially differing branches of the language tree in comparison the easy commingling of various sub-branches on the main Latin arm (think Italian, Spanish, etc.)… as well as the Germans repeatedly foiling Roman attempts at conquest.
Do you love anyone enough to give them your last Rollo?
Let’s fast-forward through the dark ages for a moment, until we arrive in 911 AD. Here Rollo the Viking is given Normandy in what is now France, after having devastated the area already through prolonged pillaging, looting, raping, and general invasion in search of things to ferment into alcohol. Over the next hundred and fifty years or so, the resident Vikings intermarry with the locals, and, because they are effectively vassals to the French King, adopt the kingdom’s language, Old French.
A Rich Tapestry of Life…
In 1066, one of the Vikings’ descendants [William the Conqueror] wanders down to the beach, looks out to sea, and asks: “What’s that over there?” To find out, he loads an army onto a bunch of ships and sails across the English Channel, to what turns out to be Hastings, where he promptly kills around two-thirds of Anglo-Saxon Nobility in a battle which is far more close-run than history gives it credit for.
The resulting Norman/French/Romance occupation of a basically Anglo/Saxon/Germanic territory results in some very interesting linguistic developments over time. By the third crusade [1189-1193], there already seems to have been a pronounced shift in the language of the British Isles through the bastardization of both strains, and the crusade itself further results in numerous Arabic words being adopted into the island’s vernacular.
By the time Chaucer writes his Middle-English Canterbury Tales about a hundred years after the 3rd Crusade, the English language has already evolved substantially compared to its original – used laughingly – Anglo/Saxon/Germanic/Norman/French/Romance roots.
Fast forward again to the 1600s, and you wind up with William Shakespeare whose works – contrary to popular opinion – are not in fact written in Old English [Old English is Beowulf], but in Early Modern English. We all know Shakespeare is considered the greatest of the English playwrights, but what is not so widely known is the fact that Shakespeare himself would spell the same word in different ways from one play to another. He would also invent words and phrases as he went along, in an effort to express himself and his plays’ meanings.
Because the written English language had not yet been formalized in the early 17th Century, and spelling was more a matter of personal opinion than any kind of intellectual discipline.
It wasn’t until sometime after Shakespeare’s death that the little known playwright, Ben Johnson [probably no relation to the disgraced sprinter] compiled something called English Grammar, between 1746 and 1755, which for the first time provided any kind of formal guidance for the then still wayward English Language. This was later superseded by the Oxford English dictionary, which has of course become an Evolutionary Linguistic Tome in its own right.
Oddly enough, well before this time , a bunch of English and Dutch Puritans boarded a ship called the Mayflower, out of Harwich (not Plymouth), leaving the British Isles for a better life in the New World and thus setting the foundation stones for a further pronounced split in the English language, which will only become far, far more pronounced as the years/decades/centuries pass. Indeed, the English Language was destined to evolve into the unknown, sprouting its own linguistic branches the very instant it transcended Britain’s boundaries and passed to new continents.
Tom-Aye-Toes and Aluminum are only the beginning…
So then… Is English really a question of right and wrong spelling or syntax? Is it as simple a matter as “We had it first?”
Of course not…
Were it as simple as that, the language would be called German nowadays, not English. Rather than being a mere Soundbyte of right and wrong, modern English is the result of a coherent linguistic evolutionary process which has been in motion for at least six millennia, and which isn’t about to stop anytime soon, no matter how hard the Brits stamp their feet.
Tom-aye-to/Tom-ah-to my Ass/Arse…
¹ despite Britain having spent three hundred of the last five hundred years at war with France, or the fact that Germany only became an actual unified country in 1861. Don’t even get me started on the Battle of Waterloo or the Napoleonic Wars in general…
² although some women are of course just as capable of being Logographic/Semantic Nazis as men, they don’t normally care enough about whether it’s “Aluminum” or “Aluminium” to start a fight with you. That province is solely the territory of Homo Britannicus, especially after a few beverages when he’s feeling “clever”.
³ Did I just start a sentence with “But”? I guess I did. And I don’t care in the slightest.
⁴ If you’re interested in finding out more about the evolution of western languages, I’d recommend J.P Mallory’s “In Search of the Indo-Europeans”. It’s an excellent starting point…
⁵ not to be confused with the other William Jones, of π fame…
⁶ For a closer approximation of the actual Indo-European Tribe at the root of all this, check out “The Kurgan Hypothesis”.
⁷ It should be noted that when the Romans tried to expand into what is now Germany, they got as far as Trier before we gave them a sound thrashing.