English is a Scandinavian language?

Here’s the most interesting adventure in linguistics I’ve run across in a while. Two professors in Norway assert that English is a Scandinavian language, a North Germanic rather than a West Germanic one. More specifically, they claim that Anglo-Saxon (“Old English”) is not the direct ancestor of modern English; rather, our language is more closely related to the dialect of Old Norse spoken in the Danelaw (the Viking-occupied part of England) after about 865.

The bolster their claim by pointing at major grammatical traits which English shares with Old Norse rather than West Germanic languages – notably, consistent SVO (subject-verb-object) word order rather than the SOV (subject-object-verb) or V2 (verb-second) orders that dominate in languages like German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon. The practical consequence they point out (correctly – I’ve experienced this myself) is that English and Norwegian or Swedish are quite a bit closer in mutual intelligibility than any of this group is with German or Dutch or Anglo-Saxon. I had actually noticed this before and been puzzled by it.

The professors think the reason for this is that rather than evolving into Modern English, Anglo-Saxon actually died out during the two centuries between the invasion of the Great Army in 865 and the defeat of Harold Godwinsson in 1066. They propose that Anglo-Saxon influenced, but was largely replaced by, the Norse dialect of the Anglo-Danish Empire. Which, SVO North Germanic grammar and all, then collided with Norman French and evolved into English as we know it.

This isn’t crazy. It may be wrong, but it isn’t crazy. Two centuries is plenty of time for an invading language to reduce a native one to a low-status argot and even banish it entirely; we’ve seen it happen much faster than that when the invaders are as culturally and politically dominant as the Anglo-Danes were in England at the time of Cnut (1016-1035).

Even in the conventional account of the evolution of English, modern English is supposed to have derived from the Anglo-Saxon spoken in the East Midlands – which, as the professors point out, was the most densely settled part of the Danelaw!

All of this gave me an idea that may go beyond the professors’ hypothesis and explain a few other things…

Previously on this blog my commenters and I have kicked around the idea that English is best understood as the result of a double creolization process – that it evolved from a contact pidgin formed between Anglo-Saxon and Danelaw Norse. The creole from that contact then collided, a century later, with Norman French. Wham, bam, a second contact pidgin forms; English is the creole descended from the language of (as the SF writer H. Beam Piper famously put it) “Norman soldiers attempting to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids”.

This is not so different from the professors’ account, actually. They win if the first creole, the barmaids’ milk language, was SVO with largely Norse grammar and some Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. The conventional history of English would have the girls speaking an SOV/V2 language with largely Anglo-Saxon grammar and some Norse vocabulary.

So I’m thinking about this, and about the political-cultural situation in East Anglia at the time historical linguists suppose it to have been the cradle of modern English, and I thought…hey! Diglossia! Basilect and acrolect!

OK, for those of you not up on your linguistic jargon, these are terms used in modern linguistics to describe the behavior of speakers in a creole continuum. Often, in a contact culture where an invading language has partly or wholly displaced a native one, you get a continuum of dialects between the acrolect (“high” language, of the invaders) and basilectal (“low” dialects) preserving more of a native language which may or may not still be alive in its original form.

A type case for this is modern Jamaica, where there’s a dialect continuum between acrolectal standard English and basilectal Jamaican patois with a lot of survivals from West African languages and Arawak. Outsiders tend to oversimplify this kind of situation into diglossia – one population speaking two languages, one “outside” and prestigious, one “inside”, intimate and tied to home and ethno-cultural identity.

But it isn’t that simple in Jamaica. Individuals are often fluent in both acrolectal and basilectal forms and mix usages depending on social situation. Husband and wife might speak acrolectal English on business, a mesolectal light patois among a mixed-race group of friends, but a deep patois with a grammar significantly different than standard English when cooking or making love. (I have a teenage nephew who lives on St. John’s, another Caribbean island, who – though tow-headed and blue-eyed and perfectly capable in American English – sometimes busts out a deep-black island dialect at family gatherings. It’s mischievous and barely intelligible, but it’s affectionate, too.)

I think, now (and this is where I go beyond those professors in Norway) that East Anglia between the invasions of the Great Army and Willam the Bastard must have been a lot like Jamaica today. Nothing quite as neat as one language dying out, but rather a creole continuum – with Danelaw Norse at the top, a remnant Anglo-Saxon at the bottom, and a whole lotta code-switching going on. There’s your cradle of English! (Well, before the Normans added their special sauce, anyway…)

This would explain much that the conventional Anglo-Saxon-centric account doesn’t, like why I can read a Norwegian newspaper far more readily than a German or Dutch one. It’s more nuanced than the professors’ version, but leads to the same top-line conclusion. English better classified as a Scandinavian rather than a West Germanic language? OK, twice creolized and later heavily infiltrated by Latin and French…but yeah, I’ll buy that description.

102 thoughts on “English is a Scandinavian language?

  1. Out of curiousity, I ran your post through Google Translate into Norwegian and Dutch, to see which made more sense to me(I’ve studied a bit too much German to use that as a test). My first impression was that they were about equally readable, which is a bit odd given how I’ve heard it claimed that Dutch is the closest language to English that exists. Norwegian obviously suffers from a slightly different alphabet – not just the å/ø stuff, but also the fact that they throw in a ton more Ks than English does, which makes the words look superficially funny. Dutch loves their Zs, but not to nearly the same extent.

    Not strictly relevant, but I’m also reminded of the one Within Temptation(a Dutch band, playing in Rotterdam) concert DVD I own – the parts where they’re speaking Dutch mostly sound like English with a stuffed nose. There’s some sentences they use where I didn’t actually realize that it was Dutch until I’d heard them a few times.

  2. The article that was linked to ignores a lot of important similarities between English and languages like Dutch, Frisian, and German. It makes it sound as though our grammar is just that of Norwegian or another descendent of Old Norse, which I’m quite skeptical of.

    English has clear West Germanic grammatical features, such as a separate article that comes before the word. Old Norse and its direct descendents have a definite article as a suffix. I’ll use Danish as an example, as that’s what I’m most familiar with. In Danish, “car” is “bil”. “The car” is “bilen”. “Bread” is “brød”, and “the bread” is “brødet”. I think these words are the same in at least Bokmål Norwegian, but I’m not 100% sure. There is a dialect of Danish, in South Jutland, that has separate articles, but I’m pretty sure this is due to their proximity to and frequent historical interchanges of people with Germany.

    West German words are also quite common in English. Simple things like “water” are basically the same in Dutch, and similar in German.

    I also think that the word-order argument is fishy. Old Norse was a case-inflected language with a relatively free word order. The subject and object of a sentence were indicated by the endings of the words, not which came before or after the verb. There was a verb-second rule, where the verb had to be the first or second thing in the sentence, so SOV wasn’t allowed, but OVS or even VSO or VOS were perfectly fine. Most modern descendents (except for Icelandic and Faeroese, and possibly a few remote areas of Norway) have lost the case declension system and picked the same solution to the problem as English (SVO word order), but that was well after the Normans.

    It’s completely plausible that there was a creole continuum like you describe, but I don’t think there’s a good reason to call English a Scandinavian language because of that. It seems that many of the same cues that help you read a Norwegian newspaper over a German one are a result of parallel evolution, like the dropping of case declension and some of the grammatical gender, rather than being a genetic relationship. This is not to discount the heavy influence that Old Norse had on English – it just seems odd to ignore the West Germanic features that are clearly present.

  3. The SOV thing doesn’t seem to me to add anything to the argument. The Saxons, Angles, and Frisians (from what is now Germany) spoke varieties of Low German (from the northern lowlands of Germany, as opposed to the High German of the mountainous south), which was an SVO language, just like English and the Scandinavian languages.

    I have the impression that the distance between languages like Old Saxon and East Norse was not large around 800 – if so, it’s not obvious that the advent of new way of speaking by the new upper class could be the event that sparks creolisation where the linguistic distance is so low – not that I’m against the creolisation idea, it seems quite neat to me, and there was clearly some jettisoning of inflection going on in the Dark Ages. I’m interested to know what basis there is for saying creolisation is more likely to have happened around 800 than around 1200, say.

    The surviving Low German I’ve heard (Plattdeutsch, there are other Low German languages still spoken in Germany, but they are harder to find), is obviously closer to northern English dialects than Standard German – I’m in complete agreement about this.

  4. English is a creole:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_English_creole_hypothesis

    Basically, some Germanic dialects (low and/or nordic) were fused with old French. About 45% of the vocabulary is Germanic, 45% is Romance, and the rest are loan words from Latin and Greek.

    As is usual in creoles, English grammar has been reduced to an isolating grammar (like Mandarin) without much morphology. This is contrary to both Germanic Romance languages of the time.

    SVO word order is a non-issue, as it is the default in creoles and word order evolves rather rapidly. Btw, Dutch is a low German language but it is not SVO but V2, like high German.

  5. I would wonder how much Scandanavian languages influenced English via Norman French; after all, you know where the Normans came from….

  6. @Winter: The hypothesis that English was creolised in the Middle Ages isn’t consensus. Thomason and Kaufmann proposed a model of language change where you can see the kind of radical simplification that English underwent without change to the “language core” – this separates such languages from creoles, which don’t share a language core with any of their ancestor languages.

    English had more inflection in 1400 than it has now, with some case inflection on nouns. This is in tension with the idea that English became a true creole language somewhere between 800 and 1200.

    Not that this much affects what I take to be the main point of ESR’s article – radical simplification short of creolisation could be driven by the same sort of process he describes. IIUC, the Thomason and Kaufmann model supports this.

  7. English also has quite a bit more morphology than your usual creole, which I think argues against the theory that it was fully creolized. Also, echoing what Charles Stewart said above, the further simplification of English morphology since the Middle English period is well documented, which is the opposite of what we expect if we were starting from a creolized base.

    But the real thing that I wonder about is vocabulary. Arguments from typology are well and good, but what can we determine about English ancestry based on the shape of its vocabulary? Are Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse different enough that we can determine how much of English’s Germanic vocabulary came from which source? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I would like to find out.

  8. JS Bangs: Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse are both well-attested in written form, so where they differed substantially, we can see where vocabulary came from. For example, many English pronouns are almost certainly from ON. However, as the proto-Germanic tree split fairly recently, it can sometimes be difficult to tell, as words were sometimes quite similar. For example, “cow” was “cú” in OE and “kýr” in ON (“ko” in modern Danish).

  9. Pingback: Is English really a Scandinavian language? « Quotulatiousness

  10. @esr
    > “Norman soldiers attempting to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids”.

    I’m not a language geek by any means, but one comment about the above — it doesn’t seem likely. There were shockingly few Norman soldiers in England post Hastings, something like 7,000 I believe. so this would be a pretty rare event. It seems more likely that Norman French was a kind of posh language that the lower classes aspired to.

    Which certainly explains the fact that French words often have a more sophisticated color too them. Dinner sounds fancier when it is venison au jus, rather than juicy deer steak, especially when Bambi is an hors d’ouevre or a canapé.. Similarly, that romance language construct of adjective after the noun continues to have a kind of sophisticated, exotic sound, in, for example, court martial, or letters patent.

  11. Interestingly, a class distinction can be seen in lots of English words with similar semantic fields, where the Germanic root is humbler than the French root. Compare “stool” or “bench” with “chair” and “house” with “mansion”. Also, the meat vs. animal one is quite interesting – most of our meat names are Romance, while most of our animal names are Germanic. Compare cow to beef, sheep to mutton, and swine to pork. Who was raising them, and who was eating them?

  12. Exactly Jessica, @esr should have known that at one moment of time being Duke Of Normandy accessorily granted you the throne of England.
    ;-)
    French was inevitably the language spoken at the Prince’s court, while the people gradually integrated at their level more and more french terms.

    One trace example is the term and position of the Chancellor of Exchequer, when the “Norman Kings” (aristocrats from France ;-) completely reinvented and modernized the financial process of the State in England :
    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=Chancellor+of+the+Exchequer

    Yes all this great lineage : Duke of Aquitaine, Normandy, Count of Poitiers, etc. were resolutely french in their culture.

  13. > For example, “cow” was “cú” in OE and “kýr” in ON (“ko” in modern Danish).

    This is an argument for descent from OE, not ON. The sound changes leading from cú > cow [ka?] are well-understood, while AFAIK there is not any attested sound change that would turn “kýr” into “cow”.

    I’m familiar with the pronoun situation, and with the doublets that English has mixing OE and ON etymology (shirt/skirt, etc.). But I’d like a broader statistical look at the whole lexicon, and I don’t know of one.

  14. Any clue why my U+028A (Latin Small Letter Upsilon) is showing up fine in the comment text box but not in the submitted comment? It doesn’t appear to be a font-rendering issue.

  15. JS Bangs: the point with “cow” was that there are many similar words in OE and ON, so to the extent that a creolization occurred, we can’t really sort out which language they come from.

  16. > the point with “cow” was that there are many similar words in OE and ON, so to the extent that a creolization occurred, we can’t really sort out which language they come from.

    That is a point which needs to be proven, not merely asserted. In the case of “cow”, sound change correspondences make it clear what the ultimate source was, and I expect that the same thing is true of many other vocabulary items. It may be the case that the vocabulary bases are so similar that we can’t disentangle them, but I’d want to see that in an actual statistical study before I believed it wholeheartedly.

  17. Actually, “water” (with -t-) might be north Germanic, cf. Norwegian (nynorsk) and Swedish “vatten” and “væte”. In contrast, west Germanic has an -ss-, as in German “wasser”. In water the -t- might be north Germanic and the -r might be west Germanic, placing English in the middle.

  18. re: English Subjects and Objects

    Funny thing… I always though I was supposed to say “I” if I am the subject and “me” if I am the object, as in:

    “I hit on Jane.”
    “Jane hit me.”

    But then I thought of:

    “I was hit by Jane.”

    Is “I” vs. “me” based on word order?

  19. @Brian Marshall

    Funny thing… I always though I was supposed to say “I” if I am the subject and “me” if I am the object, as in:

    “I hit on Jane.”
    “Jane hit me.”

    But then I thought of:

    “I was hit by Jane.”

    Is “I” vs. “me” based on word order?

    Nope. Welcome to the passive voice. In your last example, “I” is still he subject, and “by Jane” is an instrumental phrase. You could recast this more-or-less as:

    “{Something/someone}, using Jane’s action, hit me.”

    It’s the English equivalent of a lambda function. Sorta….

    P.S. “I hit on Jane” isn’t exactly the same as “I hit Jane”. Depending upon her sensitivity to sexual harassment and/or BDSM, she may well prefer one over the other. Just sayin’…. ;-}

  20. @sm
    It is “water” in Dutch, quite close in pronunciation to English.

    The best argument against English being a real creole is the fact that there never was a generarion of children in need of creating their iwn language ( I was teasing earlier). There must have been a massive influx of second language learners.

  21. @John D. Bell

    “I hit on Jane” isn’t exactly the same as “I hit Jane”.

    Right. As a fictional example:
    I hit on Jane and she didn’t like it so she hit me.

    As usual, to me, being funny is almost as important as being profound. Actually, I think humor is profound. Douglas Adams was my favorite author.

  22. @ Brian Marshall

    Oops! I misread your example as (trying to be) exactly parallel constructions, instead of as a two-sentence funny.

    My bad.

  23. Worth pointing out that there are numerous dialects and accents of English in England and that before the radio spread standardization these differed significantly more than they do today. I could well believe that Northern English (and lowland Scots) dialects are closer to ON than AS, I’m not so convinced about West Country English.

    All these dialects are basilects so the diglossia thing is complicated because there were (are) different basilects in different regions and that writers and others have come from these different regions and thus introduced differing basilectal features into the RP acrolect.

  24. I also love Dave Barry’s books – his humor can be understood on different levels, but the more you know, the funnier it tends to be.

    I can’t find the original quote, but in one of his books he said that:

    Rockefeller became so rich that he was able to put hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk but people started hating him and he ultamately had to change his name to Exxon.

    It is so close to being true…

  25. OT: Android has mobile device share of 72.4% Q3 2012. iOS at 13.9%. Android increased
    from 52.5% and iOS decreased from 15% from Q3 2011.

  26. Well, to anyone who’s spent any time in England, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the language is the way it is because of a King Cunt.

  27. As far as V2 word order, it was present in English well after the Danelaw period, and vestiges of it remain today.

    @sm:
    >In contrast, west Germanic has an -ss-, as in German “wasser”.

    This is not universal across West Germanic. It happened in southern (and partially in central) West Germanic dialects, but not in northern ones. It does not, for example appear in Dutch.

  28. Have been listening to old Icelandic (somewhat Norse by way of Scandinavia) poetry via YouTube and other places (don’t ask) and I was caught by how frustratingly close to intelligible the language was. Bird= “flyer” (not quite, and not close to the spelling…) Blizzard=driffa (drift?) valley=veli.

    And a fair number of words (like awful and awkward) are pretty clearly Norse.

    Anyway, I like your idea. You should send this link to those professors… they might laugh at you, but they might not.

  29. Given the high number of local dialects/accents England has, and how weird they are, and back then where people usually didn’t have literacy it wasn’t just pronouncing the same written word differently, but more like using different but somewhat similar sounding sounds to mean the same thing, how far back can we say there is one English language instead of something along the lines of the continuum of Germanic dialects spoken in England?

    I think maybe we are way too influenced by the modern concept of language, where it is mostly written. But when people couldn’t write then there was just a continuum of sounds between, say, “good day”, “god dag”, and “Guten Tag” and no clear limits/barriers of where does this language begin and where does that one end.

  30. Or to make my point better: to us, the literate, wine, wijn and Wein are obviously related but different words, meaning the same thing in different languages. But to the average illiterate Middle Ages person they are the same word and as far as this word is involved they are the same languages because they are pronounced the same and there was nothing else for them but pronounciation! A word was just its pronounciation.

  31. >I think maybe we are way too influenced by the modern concept of language, where it is mostly written.

    Good point. And related to the fact that speakers on a creole continuum (even speakers literate in the acrolect) often don’t think of even the most extreme acrolectal and basilectal speech registers they use as “different languages”, even when a linguist or outsider would see significant grammatical and morphological differences.

    If you asked my nephew Alex whether he is speaking a different language when he drops into a broad St. John’s patois, I think he’d say no. More importantly, he’d probably wonder what the point of the question was. So how much more pointless would the analogous question have seemed to an illiterate 9th-century East Anglian? Even if his grammar production differed significantly between a Norse-like acrolectal register and an Anglo-Saxonoid basilect, none of his experience or mental categories would equip him to think of these as different languages.

    Further, the range of the acrolect/basilect distinction at the time would have been narrower than in Jamaica or St. John’s today because the two source languages were so closely related to one another.

    Now I’m thinking about Arabic, where the spoken dialect variation is extremely broad compared to English (lots of mutual unintelligibility), almost nobody speaks so-called Modern Standard Arabic idiomatically (they know it from TV and movies) and the regional dialects are heavily substrate-influenced by (sometimes dead) local languages. But if the reports are to be believed, even Arabic-speakers don’t think of themselves as being diglossic.

  32. @David Christiansen: bil is the short form of automobil(e) [1], obviously a very recent word, and car is from Latin carrus, going back even to Proto-Indo-European like 6000 years ago, and even back then it meant some kind of a carriage, so I am not sure what exactly this demonstrates?

    [1] which I find it really cute

  33. @ESR do you buy into the “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” – that languages are created out of dialects by national academies and intellectuals largely for the purpose of building national identities? For example if the Dutch provinces are not passed down on the “Spanish” line of Habsburgs and/or the Dutch don’t get Protestant so they get pissed off by the Habsburg rule, quite probably they end up being parts of Germany during the reunification and then the Dutch language ends up basically becoming a dialect of German. But as through succesful rebellion they became a nation, they needed to elevate the dialect to the level of a language, to emphasize difference, independence, and equality to older nations. This sounds more or less obvious to me. A more recent example is the invention of Nynorsk – Norway wanted to be a nation, so they couldn’t just go on speaking the Danish “book language”. And the opposite is happening a bit to the east: Copenhagen and Malmö are practically one city with plenty of people moving to and fro, so I know quite some younger folks have this attitude: “Let’s stop this nationalistic posturing that there is a Danish language and a Swedish language, we can understand each other if we put in a bit of effort.”

    The point I am trying to make, ask two people whether they speak a different language or just a different dialect, and their answer will depend much more on them feeling to be one bunch or not, than on the objective qualities of the language. So you ask a 9th century East Anglian dude whether he speaks the same language as some other dude, and the answer will be to a large extent based on whether he thinks about that other dude in “us” or “them” terms.

  34. >@ESR do you buy into the “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy” – that languages are created out of dialects by national academies and intellectuals largely for the purpose of building national identities?

    I think this often happens, but I don’t think you can entirely reduce the language/dialect distinction to it. There are other measures, both objective and subjective, that also matter.

    One measure is whether dialect speakers actually think of themselves as speaking a marked variant of a standard language, and another is whether that perception is objectively justified by relatively small differences between “standard” and “dialect” speech forms. The answers to these questions aren’t necessarily dependent on who has flags or armies.

    In the U.S., for example, the Northern and Southern dialect groups are very clearly dialects rather than languages and wouldn’t change status even if the U.S. were to break up politically. Italy is a different story – the morphological differences between adjacent Italian dialects are often quite wide, comparable to the differences between “standard” Italian and Spanish or Portuguese. For an even more extreme case, Arabic.

    On the other hand, your example of Copenhagen and Malmö (which, by the way, I’ve experienced) happens precisely because the morpological differences between Danish and Swedish are (a) miniscule, and (b) probably decreasing. (Well, at least when the Danes bother to actually pronounce their own language rather than mumbling it. The Swedes laugh at them for this. I agree with the Swedes.)

    So I’d say that with small enough morphological differences even flags and armies and academies can’t successfully define dialects into languages.

  35. I have been exposed to a bit of Swedish. I remember the word ‘barn’ for child because of its similarity to the Scottish ‘bairn’.

    Also because that is where they should be kept, of course.

  36. When Swedes or Germans borrow a word from another language they transliterate its spelling. English speakers tend not to, unless the writing system doesn’t use the Latin alphabet. I figure that’s because French was the prestige language in England for centuries. If you’re showing off your French in writing you want to make it obvious.

    Later on we froze English spelling. As pronunciation changed the spelling did not, and English became less phonetic. My wife was never taught the phonetic system for reading English in school.

  37. @BobW
    > to the Scottish ‘bairn’.

    In my experience (having lived in both Glasgow and Edinburgh) “bairn” is really only used in the East of Scotland (Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee) on the Scandinavian side. In the west they tend to use the word “wean”, which I think is a contraction of “wee one”.

  38. > that languages are created out of dialects by national academies and intellectuals largely for the purpose of building national identities?

    This was largely the case with Finnish in the 19th century. The language-creation process managed to eventually kill off a few phonemes that used to be present in the various dialects, among other things. The somewhat unusual thing was that some of the elite members of the nationalist movement were Swedish-speaking themselves, but they were convinced of the importance of creating a Finnish literary culture. Lots of people translated their family names into Finnish, in some cases even if it was their second language.

    Finland was extremely fertile ground for this sort of thing, of course. Russia had won the territory in a war, but Finland continued to be ruled mostly with the Swedish system of administration, partly in Swedish. The Russian language was very different from the Finnish dialects, and towards the end of the 19th century, Russia tried to withdraw the autonomy of Finland in various stages.

    Lots of people have speculated what might have happened if Sweden had managed to keep Finland in 1809. Finnish might be dead or close to extinct the way other Ugric languages have died in (Soviet) Russia. (And I’d be a native Swedish-speaker instead of speaking it quite badly as a third language.)

  39. It’s an interesting story, but the following passage raised a red flag for me:

    “The[y] bolster their claim by pointing at major grammatical traits which English shares with Old Norse rather than West Germanic languages – notably, consistent SVO (subject-verb-object) word order rather than the SOV (subject-object-verb) or V2 (verb-second) orders that dominate in languages like German, Dutch and Anglo-Saxon. ”

    This can’t be right, as the standard grouping in German is emphatically not SOV. It’s SVO. For example, the English sentence Eric programs computers translates to Eric programmiert Computer in German, so the sentence structure remains unchanged. The SOV variant, Eric Computer programmiert, sounds like fingernails on a blackboard to my German ears.

    Before writing this post, I checked on this intuition by trying for about 10 minutes to come up with one correct SOV sentence in German. I failed. To control for any conceptual blocks on my part, I then picked the German book closest to my desk (Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s Mozart biography) and checked every sentence on its first five pages. Not a single SOV sentence. So much for the ‘dominance’ of that structure in German.

    Other pieces of evidence may or may not end up bearing out the authors’ basic thesis. But this particular piece takes extraordinary sloppiness to get wrong. Since the authors managed to get it wrong anyway, I now have a hard time trusting them on their other pieces, which I’m not competent to judge. I take no joy in saying this; it is, after all, an interesting story.

  40. @Thomas:

    “The SOV variant, Eric Computer programmiert, sounds like fingernails on a blackboard to my German ears.”

    I figure it was about the subordinate sentence word order, such as after a “weil”. Peter trinkt ein Bier, weil er durst hat. Peter drinks a beer, because he thirst has. I think it is called CSOV, conjunction-subject-object-verb.

  41. >This can’t be right, as the standard grouping in German is emphatically not SOV. It’s SVO.

    Only for simple verbs. Look up “V2 word order” on Wikipedia.

  42. Shenpen> I figure it was about the subordinate sentence word order, such as after a “weil”. Peter trinkt ein Bier, weil er durst hat.

    That would make sense.

    esr > Only for simple verbs. Look up “V2 word order” on Wikipedia.

    Did you mean “only for simple sentences”? I think Shenpen is right, it turns on the kind of sentence, not on the kind of verb. Either way, I stand corrected. I think I got hung up on the word “dominate” in your original post.

  43. Ah. Now I see what Eric means. It’s SOV-ish constructions that can depend on the verb. When a compound verb meets an object, the object gets sandwiched between the two parts of the compound as in “Ich fasse einen Artikel zusammen”.

  44. @esr
    V2 means underlying word order is SOV, however, in the main clause there will be one verb following the subject. All other verbs are collected at the end. Dutch and Swiss German have the same V2 word order.

    Mind you, it is not difficult to rack up half a dozen verbs at the en of a sentence.

  45. I still think the it is the subordinate CSOV that is characteristically German and none of the arguments before seemed convincing.

    V2 I’ve seen plenty of times as a stylistic element e.g. a way to express emphasis in English, it sounds kinda British and kinda older-fashioned, maybe pompous, but it is definitely there. “Unexpected was no aspect of the game” I would dub it “Churchill English”. Slightly pompous, slightly classy-Brit.

    These breaking up of long composite verbs that Thomas mentioned… no, the German specialty is not breaking up, it is the original gluing together that differs from English. “Let’s put this assembly together” is perfectly good English AFAIK. What makes German different is that in a different sentence “togetherputting” (zusammenarbeiten, zusammenlegen, zusammenfassen) would be one word. But this glueing is the specialty, not the breaking up. I mean in the sense that when they are broken up, German and English just works the same way. But when they are put together, that happens only in German. In a more formal way: constructing composite verbs from verbs and propositions is a specialty of German and the other languages that copied it, such as my native one, Hungarian. I consider it a very expressive feature – such as in the philosophical term das Umgreifende.

  46. Correction:

    “. I mean in the sense that when they are broken up, German and English just works the same way.”

    Meant: “. I mean in the sense that when they are broken up, German and English just works the same way, except in the case of the CSVO subordinate sentence.”

  47. @BobW
    > Could ‘wean’ refer to children no longer nursing?

    It is a fair supposition, but I don’t believe it is correct. The pronunciation is the same as “wane” and if is definitely used to refer to nursing children too. So although it is a homograph with the termination of nursing, it is of different origin. See: http://www.dsl.ac.uk/ which gives the etymology as “Wee + Ane” — “wee” being Scots for “small” and “ane” being Scots for “one”.

  48. @Thomas
    >Did you mean “only for simple sentences”? I think Shenpen is right, it turns on the kind of sentence, not on the kind of verb. Either way, I stand corrected. I think I got hung up on the word “dominate” in your original post.

    The word “dominate” there comes from the fact that it is rather popular in linguistics to regard German as underlyingly SOV because the set of rules needed to transform an underlying SOV structure into an SVO/V2 structure in main clauses is simpler than the set of rules needed to transform an underlying SVO/V2 structure into SOV when non-finite verbs or subordinate clauses are involved.

    I find this line of reasoning rather suspect: It considers optional cases (subordinate clauses and non-finite verbs, which may or may not appear in a sentence) to be the norm, while regarding the one mandatory case (a finite verb in a main clause, which appears in *every* sentence) as a special case.

  49. “””In the U.S., for example, the Northern and Southern dialect groups are very clearly dialects rather than languages and wouldn’t change status even if the U.S. were to break up politically. “””

    I have heard that nearly all of the US “dialects” would be considered to be a single dialect by the standards by which lines are drawn between dialects of English in Britain.

  50. @Fraser
    Thanks for the update. I’ve not heard much Scots English. Most of my exposure has been to archaic forms in print. I suspect I would need some time to wrap my head around the pronunciation.

  51. >I have heard that nearly all of the US “dialects” would be considered to be a single dialect by the standards by which lines are drawn between dialects of English in Britain.

    I’ve lived and traveled in both countries and have a keen ear for accents, so I can report that’s not quite true.

    I think that could fairly be said of two of our dialect groups – the northern and central families. The southern group, however, is at more distance from our equivalent of RP (the “network news” accent of the mid-Atlantic and upper Midwest). The southern group also has more internal variation, with differentiation similar in scale to those of regional dialects in Britain. That said, the overall range of variation in the U.S. is somewhat narrower.

  52. >That said, the overall range of variation in the U.S. is somewhat narrower.

    I should add that Britain as a whole doesn’t have a lot of dialect variation for a country of its size and age. The range gets somewhat broader if you include Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, but is still quite significantly less than in (say) Italy. American and English “dialects” are basically accents with small helpings of regional vocabulary; they have nothing like the much larger lexical and grammatical differences to be found between “dialects” of Italian, Arabic, or Chinese.

    The partial exceptions in the British Isles are in Scotland and to a lesser extent Ireland, which made historically recent use of a non-English substrate language. Even so, the difference between a thick Scots dialect and RP isn’t really in the same league with the difference between (say) Genoese and Sicilian, and even that pales in comparison to the difference between (say) Lebanese and Algerian Arabic, or Mandarin and Cantonese.

  53. “Even so, the difference between a thick Scots dialect and RP isn’t really in the same league with the difference between (say) Genoese and Sicilian, and even that pales in comparison to the difference between (say) Lebanese and Algerian Arabic, or Mandarin and Cantonese.”

    What’s your hypothesis as to why this is the case? More intra-country migration, more immigration, or ???? It’s not immediately obvious to me why Britain should differ from Italy or China in this respect.

    Actually, the last is a particularly interesting question. With so much length of history and a long-standing tendency toward centralization, why hasn’t Cantonese disappeared and been replaced by Mandarin long ago? Don’t get hung up on the effect of Britain’s Hong Kong colony; at first blush, I would have expected the differences to be ironed out long before the Opium Wars.

  54. Actually, the last is a particularly interesting question. With so much length of history and a long-standing tendency toward centralization, why hasn’t Cantonese disappeared and been replaced by Mandarin long ago? Don’t get hung up on the effect of Britain’s Hong Kong colony; at first blush, I would have expected the differences to be ironed out long before the Opium Wars.

    I suspect there are ethnic or cultural identities tied up in Cantonese and the other dialects that causes them to persist, despite Mandarin being the Official Standard.

    There was a period of time where I was delivering Chinese food to pay the bills. Being the only white guy working at a Chinese restaurant was an interesting experience. There was one incident where I said, “Ni hao ma?” to one of the other drivers, thinking I was offering a polite greeting. He looked at me angrily and said, “That’s Mandarin. We speak Cantonese here.”

  55. >What’s your hypothesis as to why this is the case? More intra-country migration, more immigration, or ????

    Static populations tend to fragment into ever-smaller dialect and language groups – or at least that was true in pre-industrial societies, I suspect it may not be true today. What produces large areas of uniform speech is, really, successful invasions.

  56. @esr: “What produces large areas of uniform speech is, really, successful invasions.”

    Interesting hypothesis. That certainly accounts for the large number of square miles in North America speaking English, and the even larger area speaking Spanish in Central and South America.

    It also means that the invaders needs to either more-or-less completely replace the previous occupants (the North American model), or subjugate them so thoroughly that the invaders’ culture becomes dominant, perhaps incorporating some elements of the previous occupants (the Central/South American model).

    Invasions that cover a large area but don’t last very long (Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany) don’t have this effect, nor do those who conquer for the long-term but leave the existing population and culture largely intact, supplemented by small-scale in-migration of invaders (Hellenistic Empires of Asia and Egypt, where Greek never became a universal language of all social classes). India is sort of a middle case, where British domination incorporated English but failed to replace all the existing regional languages.

  57. >nor do those who conquer for the long-term but leave the existing population and culture largely intact, supplemented by small-scale in-migration of invaders

    Good job of following out the premise. I agree with all your case analyses and add one: the Viking invasions of Normandy, Sicily, and Russia. Everywhere except the Danelaw, the MO of Viking conquest was displacement of the local elite warlords rather than an actual population movement. In all these cases the Vikings adopted the local language rather than imposing their own.

  58. Cantonese and Mandarin are different languages. They are mutualy unintelligible. They are called “dialects” for political reasons.

    Languages and dialects are very resilient. Even after hundreds of years of unification there are still 5 official languages in Spain. Celtic and German are still spoken in France.

    Even the Netherlands has three official spoken languages wgich are mutually. unintelligible.

  59. >Cantonese and Mandarin [...] are called “dialects” for political reasons.

    This is not entirely true. Relevant fact: One of the most common terms Cantonese-speakers use for their language is the same word for “Chinese” that Mandarin-speakers commonly use. That is, both populations claim to be speaking “Chinese”.

    Also relevant: Other terms for Cantonese translate as “speech of Guangdong” or “speech of the provincial capital”. Again, there’s no claim to be a separate language here – instead these terms imply “regional variant of Chinese”.

    The matter is complicated by the fact that overseas Chinese (a) mostly speak Cantonese, (b) are however a minority of Cantonese speakers, and (c) often have political reasons for asserting a cultural identity separate from mainland Mandarin- and Cantonese-speakers.

    So it is would more be accurate to say that when Cantonese is asserted to be “language” rather than a “dialect”, the motivation often is political. But this is a minority view among Cantonese-speakers, and there are other diagnostics in their usage that contradict it.

  60. >Even the Netherlands has three official spoken languages wgich are mutually. unintelligible.

    Really? I know about Northern vs. Southern Dutch, but my impression was that the differences between them arre very slight – some pronunciation and a few vocabulary items, really no greater than regional accent variation in the U.S. I assume the second language is Frisian. What’s the third?

  61. @esr
    ” I assume the second language is Frisian. What’s the third?”

    Frisian is indeed the main one. Resembles English even more than Dutch does.

    The third is Limburghish, a Franconian dialect in the south, around Maastricht. The dialect is one of the variants of a dialect family spoken around Cologne.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franconian_languages

    It has been recognized as a language by the Dutch government, without any other support, though. I cannot understand it. And it has two tones (like Swedish). I cannot understand it, while I can understand other Dutch dialects just north of it and German.

    As a Dutch linguistic joke goes, while Limburghish is a dialect, it is not a dialect of Dutch.

    For an American, the linguistic situation in most of the world must be extremely puzzling. The combination of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg officially has people speaking Dutch, French, and German. However, the native dialects of a third (or more) of the people living there are unintelligible to anyone who speaks only standard Dutch, French, and German.

    The rest of the world is more or less like this, often worse.

  62. @esr
    “That is, both populations claim to be speaking “Chinese”. ”

    But they need a translator to speak with people from Beijing. Their tone systems have nothing in common. Word pronunciation is different too. However, they write the same “language”.

    But they neither have an army nor a flag, so technically they are not a language.

  63. “For an American, the linguistic situation in most of the world must be extremely puzzling. The combination of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg officially has people speaking Dutch, French, and German. However, the native dialects of a third (or more) of the people living there are unintelligible to anyone who speaks only standard Dutch, French, and German.”

    You hit the nail on the head here. I can travel anywhere in the United States, from Hawaii to Maine to Texas, and have no trouble understanding the local English speakers. (I’m speaking from experience here.) I can travel to England or Canada and a few words are different (lift, lorry, etc.), but at least in the London area there’s no problem.

    So yes, it puzzles some Americans that we have such a large area of unified language while some nations about the size of one of the smaller U.S. states can support multiple unintelligible languages.

    I am guessing that language is one of the major barriers standing in the way of a true European Federation, a “United States of Europe”, where today’s nations are demoted to a political role analagous to U.S. states.

    Cathy

  64. >I can travel to England or Canada and a few words are different (lift, lorry, etc.), but at least in the London area there’s no problem.

    Data point: I’ve traveled pretty extensively in the U.K. and Ireland, and there is only one place I found the local accent unintelligible. That was in the extreme west of Ireland around Galway.

  65. >But this is a minority view among Cantonese-speakers, and there are other diagnostics in their usage that contradict it.

    Keep in mind, though, that a Cantonese speaker who grew up in China is less likely to perceive Cantonese and Mandarin as being different based on intelligibility than either a Mandarin speaker who grew up in China or a Cantonese speaker who grew up abroad, being considerably more likely to have learned Mandarin than the Mandarin speaker is to have learned Cantonese or the overseas Cantonese speaker is to have learned Mandarin.

    I’d also say that the perception of Chinese as a single language by speakers of the various dialects living in China has as much historical and cultural basis as it does political. Linguistically, however, the “Chinese language” is a language family of similar time-depth to Germanic (albeit, with a common written language).

  66. >I’d also say that the perception of Chinese as a single language by speakers of the various dialects living in China has as much historical and cultural basis as it does political.

    Which is exactly my point – that the dialect-vs.-language distinction can’t be reduced to the flags-and-armies test. The cultural history and self-perception of the people involved matter too.

  67. >As a Dutch linguistic joke goes, while Limburghish is a dialect, it is not a dialect of Dutch.

    I looked into the matter, and your report is puzzling. Historical linguists think that Limburghish is rather closely related to Dutch, part of the same Franconian subfamily, so it is odd that you find it less intelligible than German.

    (The tonality doesn’t astonish me; not only is it a more common feature than most people think, it’s also rapidly acquired and lost on historical timescales.)

  68. @esr
    > Data point: I’ve traveled pretty extensively in the U.K. and Ireland, and there is only one place I found the local accent unintelligible. That was in the extreme west of Ireland around Galway.

    I’m guessing you haven’t been to Fife in Scotland. I grew up in Glasgow, and lived in Edinburgh for many years. Fife is 80 miles from where I was born. I worked there for a while and have a very clear memory of talking to one of the locals, and having not one clue what he was saying. I think it likely that were you sitting in a pub with the locals in Yorkshire or Newcastle you would have a very hard time understanding them, and not just for accent reasons.

    Another data point for consideration. I later married an American lady. She had no trouble talking to my father, but found my mother very difficult to understand. Both my parents grew up in pretty much identical circumstances in a rough part of Glasgow. My father though worked in business, and talked to people from all over the UK and abroad all the time. My mother did not. Consequently, I’d offer it as evidence that interaction over long distances reduces the dialect differences.

  69. >I’m guessing you haven’t been to Fife in Scotland.

    I have not. Edinburgh and Glasgow, yes, and the Isle of Skye and a few other bits of the western coast. Nowhere did I find the local dialect at all difficult…but like Frodo, I have a good ear for foreign sounds and it is certainly possible that American-English-speakers without my history as a crib bilingual would have more difficulty with the deeper rural dialects. OTOH, my wife (good ear, no bilingualism) had no trouble either.

    Actually, I find Scots accents in general quite pleasant to listen to and easy on the ear – more so than a lot of English ones, which (especially in the more non-rhotic and vowel-eliding RP versions) seem rather mushy and ugly to me. I believe this reaction is very common in Americans; our own phonology is more influenced by Scottish and Irish pronunciation than RP is, both directly and through the West Country English that was our main root stock.

    >I think it likely that were you sitting in a pub with the locals in Yorkshire or Newcastle you would have a very hard time understanding them, and not just for accent reasons.

    As it happens, my experiences of “Huh?” in Galway were in pubs, though I believe my interlocutors were sober. :-) Been to Durham, close by Newcastle: found the Geordie dialect easy (and rather pleasant). Been to Yorkshire and likewise found it easy – but there I didn’t enjoy the local accent and got a hint that handling the thicker rural dialects might have been some work.

    >Both my parents grew up in pretty much identical circumstances in a rough part of Glasgow.

    Right, the implication is that your mother was still speaking unpolished working-class Glaswegian and that was a problem for an average American ear. I readily believe this – the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow accent groups is obvious to me and if I were going to have trouble with a thick example of either I’d definitely expect it to be in Glasgow. Again, I think most Americans would give you the same report on exposure.

    >Consequently, I’d offer it as evidence that interaction over long distances reduces the dialect differences.

    Oh most definitely. This is certainly why dialect differences have remained small in the U.S. and seem to be decreasing now; we’re mobile within our own country on a scale Europeans aren’t, despite the much larger distances here.

  70. >Which is exactly my point – that the dialect-vs.-language distinction can’t be reduced to the flags-and-armies test. The cultural history and self-perception of the people involved matter too.

    Certainly, but I regard mutual (un)intelligibility as the supreme test, definitely over “flags and armies”, and even over self-perception (see the first part of the post you quoted). If a monolingual native speaker of X and a monolingual native speaker of Y cannot communicate, you have two separate languages, regardless of self perception.

    Granted, it can be difficult in many cases to find a monolingual native speaker of a politically non-dominant language/dialect (for which reason overseas Cantonese are probably better judges of mutual intelligibility than Chinese-born Cantonese, since they are less likely to learn Mandarin as a second language), and mutual intelligibility can be partial, but everything I’ve ever heard about the various Chinese “dialects” says that they are mutually unintelligible with each other and with Mandarin (with some dialects even having mutually unintelligible sub-dialects).

  71. >Certainly, but I regard mutual (un)intelligibility as the supreme test, definitely over “flags and armies”, and even over self-perception

    I might agree with you if “mutual (un)intelligibility” were a boolean-valued predicate. It isn’t. There are all kinds of edge cases that play hell with it.

    There are, for example, lots of language groups that are like the famous case of circumpolar seagull clades – two speakers from any two adjacent dialect bands will find each other mutually intelligible, but if you choose two speakers from dialect bands that are more widely separated communication may fail. This is exactly what happened to me in Galway!

    By your criterion, the dudes in the pub were speaking a different language from me even though we (a) both think we’re speaking English, and (b) there are other English speakers who would understand us both and agree that we’re both speaking English. Your definition blows up here.

    It’s an exceptional situation in English, which has relatively little variation in grammar and vocabulary for a language with such a heterogenous speaker population, but there are other dialect continua in which the same sort of thing happens a lot more often. I don’t actually know for sure, but in historical grounds I strongly suspect “Chinese” is one such…and, wait, Google turns up this nugget: The spoken variants of Chinese are highly divergent, forming a continuum comparable to that of the Romance languages..

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  73. @esr
    Regarding Limburghian and “Dutch”.

    The boundary between High and Low Germanic dialects runs through the province of Limburg. This means that you find a lot of sound shifts when you travel from the nort of the province to the south. Say ‘kerk’/’kirch’ and perd/pferd. These east-west sound shift boundaries run across historical dialect areas over much of the Germanic area.

    There are a bunch of others. So the Maastrichter variant is essentially a high german dialect while the rest of the Netherlands speaks low german dialects.

  74. @Fraser Orr: [ interaction over long distances reduces dialect differences]

    @esr: “Oh most definitely. This is certainly why dialect differences have remained small in the U.S. and seem to be decreasing now; we’re mobile within our own country on a scale Europeans aren’t, despite the much larger distances here.”

    And this is not new. A Boston newspaper wrote, “Here the whole population is in motion, whereas, in old countries, there are millions who have never been beyond the sound of the parish bell.” And this was written in 1828! (From The Reshaping of Everyday Life, 1790-1840.)

    Also from the book: “In many American cities fewer than half the households remained for the ten years between one census enumeration and the next [in the early 19th century].”

    Over a 200 year period, this has to have had its unifying effect on the language, despite the large number of new immigrants pulling it apart.

  75. My mother was born in 1927 in Brooklyn of Norwegian parents, went back to Norway when she was 2, and came back to the US when she was 5. She spoke enough Norwegian still, to be able to converse with cousins when she went back to visit in 1980. They couldn’t place her dialect, and finally decided that it was “Bay Ridge” Norsk.

    She pestered at me to try to learn Norwegian, and would say things to me in Norwegian and say “Just listen to it.” Also, I had little trouble understanding signs when I went to Oslo myself. So yeah, I totally believe this argument.

  76. @esr:
    >There are, for example, lots of language groups that are like the famous case of circumpolar seagull clades – two speakers from any two adjacent dialect bands will find each other mutually intelligible, but if you choose two speakers from dialect bands that are more widely separated communication may fail. This is exactly what happened to me in Galway!

    I don’t see this as a problem. “X is the same language as Y” does not need to be a transitive relation.

  77. >“Just listen to it.” Also, I had little trouble understanding signs when I went to Oslo myself. So yeah, I totally believe this argument.

    The problem with this is that this sort of understanding is largely based on similarities in vocabulary. Same goes for Eric reading a Norwegian or Danish newspaper, and the vatten|water – wasser example someone offered earlier.

    I learned Swedish once. Long time ago so a hardly remember anything, but I do remember that having a Dutch dialect as native tongue and knowing English both helped a lot with vocabulary. For grammar and syntax, I could again draw on my knowledge of Dutch and English, and the little German I know, but mostly Dutch and English.
    Maybe Dutch is a Scandinavian language too, then ?

    Also, if I understand the Germanic sound shifts correctly, German is actually a bit of an outlier among West Germanic languages, in that it underwent sound shifts that did not, or far less, affected the other dialects/languages. It also has kept case declension so word order can be different from what you’d expect if you think in a language that doesn’t use that sort if inflexion – such as all other germanic languages. Using German as a bench mark for “west germanic” is gonna throw you.

    imo, superficial similarities in vocabulary and a sense of “it’s easy to understand Norswegian if you know English” or “English is easy to learn for Norwegians” are merely circumstantial evidence. To make the case, you’d need to be able to point out linguistic changes such as sound shifts or grammatical constructs, and maybe archaic expression, or branching in etymology, that are evident in English and the Scandinavian languages while not in West Germanic languages. Of course, the contact and creolisation thing muddies the water here.

  78. @Jon Brase: “X is the same language as Y” does not need to be a transitive relation.

    I have intuitive problems with that argument. “Things equal to the same thing are equal to each other” is a very fundamental law of logic and common sense. I think you are defining language in a way that would confuse most people.

  79. @kn
    “Using German as a bench mark for “west germanic” is gonna throw you. ”

    And Standard German is an artificial language created in the 19th century as a lingua franca. It is a patchwork of elements from different dialects. Sounds from Hanover, grammar from high German, etc. The case declension is a super-set of all cases used in Germany. The individual dialects each use only two cases out of the four.

    Even if you have a perfect command of Standard German, you will have a very, very, hard time understanding the natives in their local dialects (eg, Baden-Wurtenberg is renowned), let alone across the border where foreigners think the locals speak German (eg, Switzerland and Luxemburg).

  80. >And Standard German is an artificial language created in the 19th century as a lingua franca. It is a patchwork of elements from different dialects.

    Too recent; most accounts trace it to either the military command language invented to knit Frederick the Great’s army together or Martin Luther King’s vernacular Bible. Whatever; field observations are consistent that Standard German has been successfully displacing the local dialects ever since. The sales job succeeded at least a century ago, except in Switzerland (and Luxembourg) where there were political reasons for the locals to want to assert a separate linguistic identity.

    >The case declension is a super-set of all cases used in Germany.

    In effect, then, the construction of Standard German has archaized the language, at least temporarily reversing the tendency all the tongues in the Germanic group (including English) have shown, to gradually shed their inflectional systems in favor of positional gammar.

  81. @esr
    “Too recent; most accounts trace it to either the military command language invented to knit Frederick the Great’s army together or Martin Luther King’s vernacular Bible.”

    The bible is not really spoken, and half of Germany is Catholic. But you are probably right in that the roots of Standard German go much deeper than the 19th century.

    The account I heard was that it spread as a lingua franca in the 19th century as a vehicle for traveling stage plays. Probably earlier for publishing in general (just as the Swiss publish in standard German, but broadcast in their own dialect). Education and RTV were the big equalizers after the unification at the end of the 19th century. The story in Italy is the same, except that Italians took an existing (elite) dialect from Tuscany.

    Other standard languages tend to be derived from the court dialect (English, French, Spanish, Dutch). German is rather unique in being created not from a single dialect, but as a “pidgin” from many dialects.

  82. >German is rather unique in being created not from a single dialect, but as a “pidgin” from many dialects.

    No, actually. Look into the history of Hindi – the name means “camp dialect”, and it originally developed as a military pidgin intelligible by people speaking a large family of languages descended from Sanskrit. Later it was Sanskritized into a literary language.

  83. @esr
    “No, actually.”

    I meant for Europe (and even there it possibly is too strong a word). The rest of the world is full of “Lingua Franca”s turned into Standard languages.

    (Ki)Swahili is an obvious example. Bahasa Indonesia another
    http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lingua_franca

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  85. So Language Log has weighed in on this issue, and they find the author’s conclusions to be highly suspect. They’re much more knowledgeable about this issue than anyone here in this comment thread, and they wrote an excellent explanation, so I defer to them: English or Engelsk?.

  86. >So Language Log has weighed in on this issue, and they find the author’s conclusions to be highly suspect.

    Good explanation.

    I wonder if there’s enough primary evidence to check my conjecture that the linguistic situation in East Anglia resembled a creole continuum? Alas, probably not.

  87. …Martin Luther King’s vernacular Bible

    Never thought I’d get the chance to play history-pedant on you, Eric.

    But Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke English and lived in the United States. He is famous for a speech that made the phrase “I have a dream…” famous. (I don’t know what M.L. King, Sr. should be remembered for…)

    Martin Luther was a 16th-Century priest who became famous after he nailed a set of Theses on the BBS that was hosted on the door of a Cathedral. Later, he separated from the Catholic Church, translated the Bible into the vernacular, and ended up as name-owner of one branch of Protestant Christianity.

    But I can’t disagree with your main point. Vernacular Bibles had a large effect on language during the early era of the printing press.

    This may provide a test for the Standard-German vs. Swiss-German split. The Swiss went through their own version of the Reformation. (The leader of that part of the Reformation was Ulrich Zwingli.) They appear to have used their own Vernacular Bible, the Zurich Bible. But the Swiss did have a government and culture that were distinct, as well…which may provide evidence of the power of a flag-plus-Army.

    And a side-alley to that path of inquiry: the Mennonites and Amish grew out of a divergent sect of Swiss Protestantism. The Amish in the U.S. still speak a dialect of German. What is the relation between Pennsylvania Dutch and Standard German/Swiss-German?

  88. >Never thought I’d get the chance to play history-pedant on you, Eric.

    Gad. Clearly I haven’t been getting enough sleep. Brain fart. I know better.

    >What is the relation between Pennsylvania Dutch and Standard German/Swiss-German?

    I just happen to have learned that this week. Pennsyvania Deutsch is a Franconian dialect, closely related to Dutch and Limburghish and a handful of regional German dialects spoken east of the lower Rhine. Swiss German is a group of rather divergent dialects derived from Middle High German and heavily influenced by modern Standard German (which is mainly a development of High German). Confusingly, though, some of the Amish in Indiana speak Swiss-German rather than archaic Franconian.

    This is sort of heritage stuff for me. My maternal ancestors were mainly Swiss-German from near Zurich – Zurichers have actually remarked how much I look like a local, and if I wore Amish or Mennonite clothes I would blend invisibly into that population too.

  89. kn: anecdotal evidence cannot be used to prove something, but it can be used to disprove something. In this case, my anecdote serves to fail to disprove Eric’s thesis, which is why I related it.

  90. “The Swiss went through their own version of the Reformation. (The leader of that part of the Reformation was Ulrich Zwingli.)”

    It’s a little more complicated than that. John Calvin was one of the most influential figures of the Reformation, and he was based in Switzerland for much of his life. Basel and Geneva were centers of his life and work. It’s misleading to mention Zwingli without recognizing Calvin’s influence on the Helvetic Consensus.

  91. “My maternal ancestors were mainly Swiss-German from near Zurich – Zurichers have actually remarked how much I look like a local, and if I wore Amish or Mennonite clothes I would blend invisibly into that population too.”

    I’m getting a mental image of Harrison Ford in the move “Witness”, starring ESR…

  92. @Cathy,
    It’s a little more complicated than that. John Calvin was one of the most influential figures of the Reformation, and he was based in Switzerland for much of his life. Basel and Geneva were centers of his life and work. It’s misleading to mention Zwingli without recognizing Calvin’s influence on the Helvetic Consensus.

    And historical pedantry comes back at me…but I think I deserved that one.

    (It looks like any study of languages in Western Europe will eventually reach a study of the history of various cultural groups, and how those groups and their languages interacted with the broad movement known as the Reformation…And the development of the printing press, and the changes in culture/economy that came in parallel with both.)

    For more Bible-translation fun (closer to the possibility of English as Scandinavian language): I seem to remember that King Alfred the Great released portions of the Bible in Old English.

    Would those shed any light on the blending of Danish and English? But they would be from the non-Danelaw section of England.

    Another aside: has no one has mentioned Beowulf yet? It’s a story from the Scandinavian part of the world, which mentions the Danes, the Geats, the Jutes, the Swedes, etc. But the only version we have is written in Old English. I’m not scholarly enough to know what the language-scholars think about Beowulf. But it has to provide some evidence.

  93. I’m skeptical of the Englesk hypothesis, though it’s evident that English was changed quite a bit through contact with the language of the Danelaw.

    Re German word-order: German has two word-order variants for statements: independent (SVO) and dependent (SOV). Subordinate word order is used after subordinating conjunctions; otherwise independent word order is used. In independent word order, the conjugated verb is always in the second place, and any other verb form (e.g. infinitive in the future tense, participle in present perfect) is at the end of the sentence. In dependent clauses, the conjugated verb always comes at the very end of the clause, after any non-conjugated verb forms (there is an exception to that rule: when there is a conjugated auxilliary verb, a non-conjugated main verb (e.g. infinitive or participle), and a modal verb in a dependent clause, the auxilliary verb comes first, the main verb second, and the (non-conjugated) modal last, e.g. “…, weil sie das hat machen können.”

    Dutch definitely seems closer to English to me than Swedish etc. As David Christiansen pointed out, the definite article in the modern Scandinavian languages is expressed as a suffix on its noun, e.g. “hus” is Swedish for “house”, “huset” “the house”. There is a separate token for the definite article as well when an adjective modifies the noun: “det nya huset” “the new house”.

    Language contact can be very influential. No one would argue that Swedish is a dialect of German, yet you can see many borrowings (likely via Low German during the age of the Hansa) from German in Swedish, e.g. “anwenden” (“to use”) as “använda”.

    FWIW, I am a native speaker of English and a near-native speaker of German. I speak Swedish reasonably well, and I can read Danish & Norwegian. I understand Low German (at least spoken on Radio Bremen’s daily news broadcast in Platt). I can read Dutch with some effort. I think I’m stuck in a Germanic languages rut.

  94. The problem with the V2-word-order argument is that Yiddish, which arose inside the High German dialect continuum, is also V2-only like Icelandic and earlier varieties of English. It lacks the contrast between independent (V2) and dependent (SOV) clauses that Dutch and German show. “Est ist schwer, ein Jude zu sein” is acceptable German, with the verb at the end of the dependent clause, but its exact Yiddish equivalent is “Es iz shver tsu zayn a yid”, with V2 order in both the the independent and dependent clauses, just like English “It’s hard to be a Jew”. What this tells us is that this feature is fairly easily changed within a single line of linguistic descent.

    No, the theory is not just wrong but in fact crazy. It latches on to the features we know are easily changed, and ignores the ones that are stable. It is special pleading in excelsis. The creolization theories don’t stand up either: Middle English is far too morphologically irregular to be any sort of creole, and the influence of Norman (and later Central) French on English is nearly confined to vocabulary. If English were proved to be a creole because it didn’t have much morphology, Mandarin would have to be a creole too, for it has about the same amount (slightly more, if anything).

  95. >The problem with the V2-word-order argument is that Yiddish, which arose inside the High German dialect continuum, is also V2-only like Icelandic and earlier varieties of English.

    So? This doesn’t seem to refute anything. The gravamen of the Professors’ argument isn’t a shift between V2 and SOV, but the difference between West Germanic SOV and North Germanic SVO. Some other commenter pointed at a pretty convincing counter to their theory; this wasn’t it.

    >The creolization theories don’t stand up either: Middle English is far too morphologically irregular to be any sort of creole

    Not buying it. If you’d said “too morphologically irregular to be any sort of pidgin” you’d have a point – but one of the things we see happening during creolization is that a degree of irregularity not typical of contact pidgins creeps back in, especially when the creole forms from an acrolect/basilect continuum between languages with different morphologies. Parallel modern cases include modern Maltese (where Arabic morphological features in old Maltese competed with those of English at different point in the continuum that double-creolized into modern Maltese) and Jamaican patois (English vs. morphology from West African languages, ditto).

    >If English were proved to be a creole because it didn’t have much morphology, Mandarin would have to be a creole too, for it has about the same amount (slightly more, if anything).

    Careful what you use as an attempted reductio. It might turn out to be true! On the historical record, it is quite plausible that “Mandarin” is a creolized descendent of a contact pidgin between different “dialects” of Middle Chinese. Consider the politico-linguistic situation at the start of the Qing dynasty: the Manchus didn’t have a stake in any pre-existing court dialect, so they didn’t impose an acrolect on the mandarinate. “Mandarin” was free to develop as a set of compromises between divergent regional languages.

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  97. Finally, a solid theory that disproves the obviously racist West Germanic derivative theory of 19th century pro-”Aryan” zealots. The double creole theory, and even the Scandanavian theory alone, destroys the perception of English as a West Germanic language by rendering it a semi-Romance (because of the Norman creolization and the ancient profound Greco-Roman influence on ancient Germanic dialects) and North Germanic (because of the factors discussed in the article) language. I read Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon and then the Canterbury Tales in Middle English – they are vastly different languages, structurally and vocabularily.

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  99. The Normans spoke French? Would that be news to anyone who knows language matters? Would it not be likely Normans spoke their own patois of the Gallo-Romance langue d’oil rather than the Capetians’ Ile-de-France langue d’oïl tongue?

  100. >Would it not be likely Normans spoke their own patois of the Gallo-Romance langue d’oil rather than the Capetians’ Ile-de-France langue d’oïl tongue?

    A question of definition. If I understand the evidence correctly, the divergence among langue d’oil dialects has never been very large, not as large as in the langues d’oc and certainly not as large as in (say) Italian. They’re all readily mutually intelligible with minor phonetic shifts – admittedly lots of local lexical items but relatively little morphological variation (but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bit more in Brittany, where Breton seems to have influenced the local French).

    And in this case the Vikings seems to have picked up the local speech very rapidly – none of the period texts I’ve seen look anything like an actual patois or creole. Modern Norman French is basically a regional accent with a handful of nautical and legal terms traceable to Old Norse but heavily nativized.

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