A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite?

How best to talk about English in English.

In the first nine pages of Henry Hitchings’ The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, words can see. (They are “witnesses.”) They are containers (with fossils in them). Language is a combination of earth and artifact. (It allows us to do archeology.) It is both abstract and communal. (It is a “social energy.”) English is an object of trade. (It was “imported.”) It is an animal. (It has a “pedigree.”) It is a human professional. (It has a “career.”) It is a space (“a place of strange meetings”). English vocabulary is a building (it has architecture), and English has sex, lots of it—it’s not just “promiscuous”; it’s a “whore.”

Hitchings is an excellent writer, and if the list looks excessive when pulled from the page, it’s only because English is a dizzying and manifold thing. In this year’s many other books about the language, including John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Mark Abley’s The Prodigal Tongue, and David Crystal’s By Hook or by Crook, English is variously described as weird, kinky, oceanic, or a supernova. In Roy Blount Jr.’s Alphabet Juice and Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, its immensity is discussed with some degree of rapture. Overall, English is portrayed as either language triumphant or the scrappy linguistic underdog who came out on top.

Of course, you can’t talk about 1,500 years of codified sound waves without using some kind of analogy, but is it helpful to call English a mallard or a dolphin or a lonely transvestite? What’s the best way to talk about English in English?

There’s a lot to be said for the geographical analogies commonly invoked to describe any language—map, artifact, fossil. Perhaps more than any other tongue, English has been decisively shaped by the series of intense geopolitical events that mark its short but vivid history. In its first 600 years, English was the language of the invaded; later, it became a language of invasion. English began in 449 when marauding Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Frisians sailed from their homeland (now Denmark, northern Germany, southern Norway, and Sweden) to invade a small island in the North Sea. The tribes settled there, replacing the land’s Celtic languages with their own. The word English itself comes from Anglisc, the dialect of the Angles.

Twice more, English was profoundly shaped by bloody incursions. At the end of the eighth century, one horrible raid kicked off years of violent Viking assaults, followed by a less bloody period of Norse influence when a Danish king also became king of England. Later, in 1066, Norman invaders trounced the locals in a single grim battle. Both Vikings and Normans (who spoke French but were originally Scandinavian), left a lasting mark on the language. In addition to about 2,000 words we still use today, including the pronouns they and their, contact with the Vikings also pushed English away from its syntactic roots. Suffixes that indicated who did what to whom began to be dropped in favor of set word order.

The Norman rule also brought many linguistic changes, introducing words like fortress, conflict, siege, assault, armor, and war, as well as the rather practical idea of a surname. Of course, Latin had a huge impact on English, too, both via French and directly. Many Latin words to do with scholarship and religion have entered English over hundreds of years, but even in the earliest days of the language, the founding tribes brought about 300 Latin loans with them to England, mostly day-to-day words that became street, wall, cheese, and wine, for instance. The layering of loans into English means it now often has three terms for the one thing. Hitchings explains that the Anglo-Saxon term is often neutral or vernacular, the French term is considered sophisticated, and the Latin or Greek term may connote a more clinical or scientific view. Compare fire, flame, conflagration; go, depart, exit; dead, deceased, defunct.

Biological analogies may be even better than geographical ones—and it’s no wonder the metaphors move swiftly from animal to promiscuous beast. English may be the most hybrid language in the world, having absorbed genes from at least 350 other languages. While no language without loan words exists, fewer than one-quarter of English words today, says Hitchings, come from the founding Germanic tongue. English has at least 100 loans from languages like Urdu and Malay as well as rarer but widespread incursions like chimpanzee from Tshiluba, a West African language.

English-as-biology is one of the best analogies because it provides a coherent way to talk about the family relationships English has with other languages. You could even see English itself as a group of closely related species. There are so many varieties of English in the world that experts say it is correct to talk not of English but of Englishes or Global English.

But it’s hard to resist the urge to pick a particular kind of animal as the perfect emblem for English. McWhorter says it’s a dolphin among deer. He calls German, Dutch, Yiddish, Danish, and other close English relatives antelopes, springbok, and kudu. English has evolved so far away from the basic language body plan, he says, that it swims underwater and echolocates. McWhorter himself strays far from English-language dogma, which says that, first, our language is special because of its openness to new words and, second, that the displaced Celts had little to no impact on English. He argues that English grammar, thanks to the pre-English inhabitants of Britain, is what really makes it unique. Welsh and English are two of very few languages in the world that use something like -ing as a habitual way of marking present tense, not to mention a fairly unusual use of do, as in “Why does English use do in questions?” It can be no coincidence, says McWhorter, that these two languages coexisted for hundreds of years in England and both have these highly unusual features.

Abley says English is a mallard because the common duck’s indiscriminate interbreeding threatens indigenous duck breeds all over the world. In the same way, modern English infiltrates diverse languages everywhere. Today, English is spoken by billions of people all over the globe. Mandarin may have more native speakers, and Spanish and Hindi-Urdu have about the same number, but English claims a special distinction: It is so popular among language learners that there are more speakers of English as a second language than there are native speakers. English is now the language of urbanization and globalization.

You could as easily call English a whale for its size. Hitchings says there were about 50,000 English words 1,000 years ago. Now there are at least three-quarters of a million. Though the inflation began when English was spoken only in England, it continued apace when English began its migration across the world. It occurred via trade and during the Crusades, when words from Arabic like dragoman, algebra, crimson, and cotton entered the language. It continued in an extraordinary period of linguistic plasticity following the Renaissance: Between 1500 and 1600, approximately 39 of every 100 words in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary entered the language. English expanded symbiotically with the British Empire, which, at its height, covered more than one-quarter of the planet’s surface. The slave trade left its mark, too. Hitchings says that honkie, hip, and possibly OK come from Wolof, which was originally spoken in Senegal, Mauritania, and Gambia. English ballooned again by at least 90,000 words in the 20th century, a period characterized by many scientific advancements and not coincidentally turning up words like robot, from the Czech noun robota, meaning forced labor.

In the end, geographical and biological analogies are underwritten by political and social ones. In explaining English, writers inevitably find themselves defending it against something and proclaiming it a winner—whether an imperial victor, or the underdog that has come out on top. English chauvinism has been around for at least 450 years. Historically, the self-appointed defenders of the language consider it a gift to be treasured by other cultures as well as something that native speakers should protect from loan words and cherish—by adhering strictly to its grammatical rules. (Don’t use double negatives, etc.) Linguists like David Crystal have written many tracts defending the everyday-Joe user of English against this kind of snotty prescriptivism. But the old triumphalism about English has, to some extent, been replaced by a new triumphalism, a swaggering pride in how down-and-dirty it is.

Either way, the complicated reality of English today is obscured by simple storytelling in which it is the only main character. For example, the accelerating decline of languages all over the world is typically attributed to the global dominance of English. Yet linguist David Graddol says that the loss of linguistic diversity in the world began even before English became a powerhouse. According to Graddol, “the entire world language system is restructuring,” and English should be viewed as a player in this scenario, not the cause of it. Indeed, there is evidence that the widespread use of English actually boosts the growth of other languages. As English becomes a basic skill shared by all, the competitive edge it used to offer is lost, and other languages must be learned to gain an advantage. Finally, even though the global spread of a single language is an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of all language, English may ultimately be just the first instance of this: Mandarin and Spanish are beginning to dominate in different regions, and Arabic is currently the world’s fastest-growing tongue.

So does it make sense to get excited about English at all? Yes, and if you don’t believe me, watch The Wire, if you haven’t already. No book I’ve read in years comes close to the HBO series for the sense of exuberance it gave me about the English language. The Wire’s rendering of English in the Baltimore ghetto inspired more conversations about language with nonlinguists than I have ever had. In their best moments, this group of books achieve what the dialogue on The Wire did in every episode: They crack the tight seal between the thoughts you have and the words you choose to express them. At their most inspired, they convey the immensity of the animal in space and time, giving you not just the idea but the feeling that English is not really your language; you are merely its speaker.