English Is Plain Weird

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership at.

S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I’m John McWhorter and you know, let’s not make any pretense. Yes, this is a language podcast, but

S1: we’ve got a musical element. Let’s just kick this off with a song. This is got to be this or that.

S2: The year is 1945 and the person singing it is Dinah Shore. And this is just a song I’ve always liked. It’s the melody I like in particular. And this was all over Looney Tunes soundtracks for a few years because their composer, Carl Starling liked it. In any case, I’ve loved this one since I was about 15. Got to be this or that. Sung by Dinah Shore. This was a song by Sonny Schuyler.


S3: You went wrong. You’re right. If I die, it’s like if you ain’t sure, you’ve got to be there for the but for its blood if you don’t spend you. But if it ain’t bad, it’s to be Versova

S4: who cannot bear. It ain’t me. I know it’s not my brother yet.

S3: You gotta be one way or the other. Tell me what I must know, if you don’t mind, I’ll go if it ain’t yes, it’s not gonna be this or the.

S2: What I want to talk about this time is something that I’ve been writing a little about academically, and so it’s been on my mind and that is


S1: that English is not

S2: normal. The more you hang around in linguistics, the more languages you mess around with, the more language histories you learn, the more you realize that this language that I’m speaking right now, although it has many advantages for mundane and often unfair reasons, this language is not normal. And by that I don’t mean that it’s extraordinary.

S1: I mean that English is weird

S2: as languages go. And I actually find this one of the funnest things that I know about language. And yet it’s very

S1: hard to perceive it because it’s the language that we speak

S2: and it’s the language that spoken by so very many other people in the world. English can feel so normal, but it’s actually a highly abnormal thing.


S1: And I want to share with you how it’s abnormal.

S2: And what I mean specifically is

S1: that when

S2: we think about language, we have to think about the history of Homo sapiens and the history of Homo sapiens, as far as is known, now goes back about three hundred thousand years.

S1: And we might suppose that

S2: language emerged then. It’s the way I tend to think of it now. It’s also possible that Homo erectus had language, in which case language goes back about one point eight million years. That is Daniel Everett, another linguist view, and I am pretty convinced of it. But let’s be conservative for now. Let’s say that it’s three hundred thousand years.


S1: The thing is, for most of that time, humanity was

S2: quite different from what most of humanity is now the Neolithic revolution, the beginning of large scale architecture and the development of what we call civilisations. That’s only ten thousand years


S1: ago or so. And so what that means is that for, say, two hundred and ninety thousand years, what humanity mostly was was

S2: relatively small groups living on the land language

S1: developed there. So anything that happens to language after that is a departure

S2: from what language normally was,

S1: what this evolved to be. And we can get a sense

S2: of what language would have originally been like from the relatively few, for example, Hunter-Gatherer groups that are still around now. Now, of course, they are living in the modern world and they change just as everybody else does. But still, you can get hints.


S1: And if you get a sense of

S2: what normal language is, as in something close to what language would have originally been like, you see that English is just the oddest thing. So I’m just going to

S1: give you a few ways that

S2: what we think of as perfectly natural is actually weird. One of them is that we have an elaborate system of numbers. It seems like the most natural thing to be able to count to 10 or to be able to count to twenty thousand five hundred and forty two if you’re messing around with another language. One of the first things you want to know is what are their numbers? But, you know,


S1: the truth is that it is quite possible to

S2: be a perfectly normal and complex and nuanced language and not really have numbers. And there’s evidence that that’s the way language very often was until not too long ago. And one way that we know it is that among Hunter-Gatherer groups, it’s not uncommon to

S1: not really have numbers or to only have,


S2: say, one in two or maybe one, two, three and four. And that’s it. That is perfectly normal. It is not the normal human condition to walk around thinking about concepts like 42,

S1: because the truth is, if

S2: you’re a small group and you’re living close to the land and everybody is in intimate contact all the time, you don’t


S1: really need to specify 42.

S2: Frankly, you can see the things in front of you. And to the extent that you need to know how many of them there are, while you all know because you’re all looking and as far as there being 42 of something, if you

S1: think about it, why would you ever need to specify that that

S2: might be something that happens during trade? But suppose you don’t trade with many people. So example, the Pyra. This is an Amazonian group and they’re in Brazil and they’ve been studied by Daniel Everet and various other people.

S1: They have if you’re

S2: looking for numbers,

S1: they have one and


S2: two. Like if we were learning the language, we would think that Hoyt is one and then Hoyt is two. Of course, they only are different according to the tone, oddly enough. But Hoyt one, Hoyt two.

S1: But that’s not really what they mean.

S2: So first of all, we might think it’s rather odd that all you have is one and two.

S1: But then again, they don’t really have that that first word, the height doesn’t really mean one. It means a small

S2: amount like

S1: little bitty thing. So roughly one. But really just Luna, it just means kind of then Hoyt doesn’t mean to because it can be three.


S2: What it really means is a little more than Hoy. So they don’t really mean one and

S1: two the people who don’t have numbers

S2: and. This is a perfectly normal condition. They happen to have gotten a lot of press for various reasons, but there are other groups that are just like that. And it’s interesting the way the Pentagon press was something that kind of stuck in my craw because the idea was,

S1: well,

S2: the PR had turned out not to be very good at math, and it must be because they don’t have numbers that always struck me as kind of backwards. It’s not that they’re not good at math because they don’t have numbers. It’s that they don’t have numbers


S1: because they don’t do math,

S2: i.e. they have no reason to

S1: count. That’s a different

S2: thing. Imagine if you found some group of people who for some reason wear no clothes. And the headline was Tribe wears no clothes because they don’t have words for clothing. No, they don’t have words for clothing because they

S1: don’t use clothes.

S2: Same thing here with the numbers. But in any case, still, from our perspective, it is neat that people can get along without numbers. This is not a perfect correlation. There are Hunter-Gatherer groups that have, you know, the numbers that we would expect. Often they have borrowed the numbers from other groups of people,

S1: but still in especially South

S2: America and Australia, there is a tendency and that is that a hunter gatherer

S1: group will have few or

S2: no numbers. And that is certainly a legacy of the


S1: fact that original

S2: renditions of humanity did not need to do long division. They did not need to talk about 516 because everything was just right there. And you could tell you ask a woman, how many children do you have? And she has five. Well, there doesn’t need to

S1: be a word for that.

S2: If you’re standing there looking at the five, she might do something with her fingers, but that’s about it. And let’s face it, as far as the fingers go, how

S1: likely is she to have

S2: 13 children? So your hands will take care of it? Fine.

S1: And I should say also that I always had an

S2: intuition about this just from reading too many books. But people have actually, unlike me, gone and done the work. And the correlation here is something that was discovered by the linguist patients Zepps, Claire Bauen, Cynthia HandsOn, Jane Hill and Jason Zandt’s. So they’re the ones who did the work. But that means we having this one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 and then 11 and 12. That is not the way a language has to be. And language that’s

S1: real in a way doesn’t have labels for those abstract

S2: mathematical concepts because you’re just holding it all in your hand. Something else like that, red, pink, orange, apricot,

S1: yellow,

S2: goldenrod, green, aqua, meridian, no, no, that is not normal. Having all of those words for colors and not words for colors where you’re saying something like the color of a robin’s head or something like that. But really words for colors that only mean the color, these dedicated color terms, as we call it, that is not the way a language has to be. And all evidence is that language did not start that way. Now, I did a show about colors on some years ago, and a lot of you seem to like it, but that means I’m not going to repeat what I said


S1: there, except to say that you can be a language where really all you’ve got is black and white.

S2: And then with everything else, if you need to specify, you’ll say the color of a strawberry, the color of a rose, the color of a frog. And that’ll take care of it, especially in a society where basically everybody is face to face. And so you can even say the color of her T-shirt and everybody knows what color her shirt is. And there you go. So pure, huh? Is useful for this. Again, they have something where we would think they were saying black and white. But really what those two words mean is dark and light, which is something a little different than black and white, and

S1: that’s all they have. As far

S2: as anything, you would even start to call color terms and you could even push it and say that they don’t have words for colors at

S1: all.

S2: And then as I noted in that show back in 1958, you have black and white. A language can just have black and white. If it has three colors, it’s not going to be black and white and then green, never. It’s black and white. And then the next one is always red. Then if you’ve got more than that, it’s black, white, red, and then either

S1: green or

S2: yellow and they kind of toggle. Then you go from yellow to green or from green to yellow. But it’s always one of those. And then if you have more than them, then the next one to come is blue, not brown, but blue because brown comes after. Then you get the other colors. And that’s been shown to be a very strong universal tendency around the world. You see it again and again. So, for example, I was paging through a grammatical description of an obscure but interesting Polynesian language called Tuvaluan the other day for reasons that need not detain us to follow. And yes, it does have a pretty name as Polynesian languages tend to like Tuvalu.


S1: And I was just looking at this and I was thinking to myself, hmm,

S2: let’s check out the colors just now. I’ll bet nobody has happened to bring this language into the color term database. And so in the back of the book, they had the colors. And wouldn’t you know, there’s black, white, red and yellow after that. It’s the color of the alligator that I don’t know if they have alligators, but the color of this bud or something like that, they have BASIX. And it’s exactly in that order that you would expect. Or another example that I’ve always enjoyed is in Samarkand. That’s this Creole language that I’m always talking about that is spoken in the rainforest and Surinam created by runaway slaves who made new lives in that rainforest. Their descendants are still there today. And Sara Mochan is

S1: English words with a lot of Portuguese words,

S2: too, and then a grammar that is profoundly impacted by one African language in particular called Dongbei. And so it’s an interesting hybrid and also New has a centuries old language, and it conforms to this color term pattern perfectly, including little things that don’t make sense until you know how this sort of thing works. So, for example, egg yolk in Samarkand is egg red bête is the word for red. It’s an African word. It’s a word from the language Bombay. And so

S1: Bebek diable

S2: red of the egg. Now, why red?

S1: It’s not that the yolks are

S2: scarlet colored or something like that.

S1: It’s that if you

S2: are a language that is developing, well, orange comes late in the game. Orange is after brown.


S1: That’s the color of a yolk. Well, if you don’t have orange, what’s the closest thing?

S2: It’s red. And so naturally Samarkand when developing is going to say the red of the egg, because if you’re not distinguishing orange in your language yet, you can certainly see it. But if you’re not distinguishing it in your language, red is going to be

S1: probably the closest thing.

S2: And so Bebé Audioboo is something that tells you about how these color terms work. In any case, if we’re on the colors, then why don’t we do black and tan? And by that I mean, let’s do some early illington. I love them. The grimy sound of these early recordings, I mean, even when they clean them up still in this case, for example, we’re listening back ninety four years at this point, and this is Black and tan fantasy played by the Ellington band. This recording knocked me to the wall. When I first heard it, I first heard it, I think in nineteen ninety is just such an arresting composition and it has a name that has the colors in it, which gives me an. Excuse to share it with you. Listen to this.

S3: Been.

S2: I could go on about that cut forever, that trumpet, that growling trumpet that was Bubba Mylie, that sound just turned everybody upside down and definitely turned me upside down when I first heard it as a poverty stricken graduate student way back. And I still love that cut to pieces. English is also weird because we have too many goddamn words and I think we’re pretty proud of it. We kind of like the idea that there are these dictionaries that should practically have their own address. And we think that our language is mighty because it has all these words. But no,


S1: that’s actually a weird excrescence. There’s a kind of elitism in it, you could say pushing it.

S2: But still there is an argument.

S1: And that’s because think about what

S2: we consider a word. So, for example, you know what expiate means because it’s a word we actually use. You know what expatriate means. Get out.

S1: OK, how about expatiate?

S2: Did you know there’s that word? I only know it because it was in a language arts book that I used. And I think 7th grade expatiate means to go on and on and on like me now.

S1: Now, we might say it’s nice that that’s in the dictionary, but have you ever used it? And if you have, have you ever heard somebody else use it?

S2: I’m not sure I have ever seen the word in use. And I read a fair amount. It’s a word in the dictionary, but what’s it doing there? If it’s known by so very few people and there’s so many other words that you could use or another one condign that CEO and dig and dig and condign, condign punishment, a punishment that fits the action? Well, it’s condign. Say something British about that word condign.

S1: Do you know that word? I don’t mean I see

S2: it every now and then. I always have to remember what it means. I don’t know the word condign. I’m telling you about it as this exotic object, but

S1: I don’t know it. I don’t use it and I don’t really see what the point of that word is. Did you know if there’s a word lith some?


S2: You can imagine what it means, but did you know that that exists and you may be new? There’s also a word lissome.

S1: Do you use them? I’ve seen them maybe in

S2: poetry or something like that. There’s so many words like that. Now, don’t get me wrong,

S1: in

S2: most languages there is some kind of ceremonial vocabulary. So there’s the basic vanilla vocabulary. Sorry, folks, I know a lot of you don’t like it when I say vanilla, so let me have something else planned. The Rice Krispie vocabulary. But no, somebody is going to say they really like the flavor of them. So what about the

S1: let’s leave it with the Rice Krispies?

S2: Because let’s face it, I mean, really. So the Rice Krispie vocabulary. And then there are other words that you might not learn as an outsider for a long time, if ever used in various other situations, it might be some sort of initiation, right. It might be ceremonial. It might be at funerals or it might be in formal speeches.

S1: So that is

S2: part of being a language. But the

S1: thing is, in languages used by

S2: people living close to the land, they don’t

S1: have as much vocabulary that isn’t used

S2: very often as we do in English. And note that those things are for ceremonies, whereas with expatiate and can condition and lies, what are they for? It’s not for ceremony.

S1: And with lissome may be poetry,

S2: but nobody’s talking about expatiate and condign in a poem.

S1: They’re just these really obscure words that sit there for no reason. Or the reason is

S2: because writing, which comes along very late in the game, homosapiens, three hundred thousand years writing only goes back about fifty five hundred years, very late in the game. Writing means that you can scribe down these words and maybe they’re used more at a certain time than they are now. You can scribe them down and gradually build up this thing called the enormous dictionary and you can say, well, that’s


S1: a word because expatiate is in there, but in what sense is

S2: it a word and what’s it for? And, you know, they’re also ones in the dictionary

S1: that really aren’t words. So expatiate. Well, it’s they’re all right. But do you know

S2: that in the dictionary you can find if the dictionary is enormous, Ruth, so ruthless means that you don’t have any mercy. So it follows that there used to be a word, Ruth, that meant Mersea use it in a sentence and he showed her no, Ruth, it’s unusable. It’s not a word at all. And yet you can find it in the dictionary and not always marked archaic as Ruth. And the idea being that, well, you didn’t know that one

S1: and four, that’s not a word at all or happy. OK, well there is a word Hape use it in a sentence.

S2: LUCKE Well, I guess I’m out

S1: of Hape today.

S2: Well, I sure wish I had had more hape in the it’s just not a word. And yet there it is in the dictionary.

S1: Languages that are real don’t have this.

S2: And so, for example, if you are people living close to the land and the language isn’t written and remember most languages aren’t written, the vast majority of languages are never written down except maybe by missionaries or, you know, the occasional document or something like that. Most languages are only talked. And so they’re just keep their mouths full of air

S1: if you’re using a language

S2: like that. Well, some people might know more words than others, but if a word goes out, then after nobody’s alive, who remembers it? It’s gone because there’s no way to have written it down. And so the size of the vocabulary of a language like that might be several tens of thousands of words. And that’s a whole lot of words that can cover anything that a human being needs, including the nuances, but


S1: not a million.

S2: It’s just not a natural way for a language to be.

S1: You know what else? I don’t know what it is spelt. You know, I know that’s real.

S2: I know that’s a real word. But, you know, you’re at the farmer’s market and then it’s like that stand and there’s flower and there’s rye and they’ve got some different kind of corn or something. Then they have spelt, what is that stuff? I’ve never known. Something else that’s weird about English is how long our sentences can be. For example, I was at my office the other day and I realized that I had never quite looked over Daniel ever. It is going to come up again. There’s a grammatical description that he co-wrote of another language of Brazil called Wari. What not Larry. Larry, you have to do the glottal stop. And so I was looking through it. And at the end of it, he has some texts, as in people just speaking the language. And it reminded me of something, which is that linguists have found that, for example, even educated English speakers typically talk in packets of seven to ten words at a time. It all depends on what you call a sentence,

S1: but people don’t talk

S2: the way we’re trained to write their speaking. And then there’s writing. And so this person is talking about, you know what the myth of how corn came to be. I think it was in Wari.

S1: And the way it goes is this it’s actually it’s a neat story, but everything is very telegraphic. And that’s the way sentences are in casual speech in all language.


S2: So Wari never used in writing this story. They planted all of it. It was a small garden. The garden wasn’t big. It was small. They planted all of it. It’s all planted farther. OK, then time passed, time passed and passed. Finally, the corn said I will get big. Finally it’s flowers. Said I will burst open. They all burst open. Finally it said I will have greens when they tore and looked at it. The corn has grains, father. Stop touching it, ok? And it goes on and on like that.

S1: And you know, that sounds kind of like the

S2: Goldilocks story in the pacing.

S1: Except if you dredge up one

S2: version of

S1: Goldilocks today, then you have sentences like this one day after they had made the parts for their breakfast and poured that into their porridge bowls, they walked out into the wood while the porridge was cooling

S2: that they might not burn their mouths by beginning too

S1: soon, for they were polite, well, brought up bears.

S2: What is that? And I mean, there’s a kind of a beauty in it, but nobody does that in Wari because this is something that only happens when you’ve got writing that kind of sentences, something that you can do when you can create it very slowly and when maybe you can look back over it with your eyes a couple of times if you get lost.

S1: And while they were away, a little girl called Goldilocks who lived at the other side of the wood and had been sent on an errand by her mother, passed by the House and looked in at the window,

S2: that sort of thing. None of that in the way language would originally have been. Now, there are ways of being artful with language other than having long sentences. You can use your arcane vocabulary. There are things you can do with intonation there, things you can do with tone that things you can do with sentence structure besides making things too long. They’re things you do with sounds.


S1: But the idea that a

S2: sentence can be the tapeworm that we’re used to in written English and that then we learn to an

S1: extent to speak

S2: because we spend our lives engaging writing.

S1: That’s a weird thing, because the way language

S2: originally would have been for, say, those first two hundred and ninety thousand years is what we would think of as relatively telegraphic because it was only spoken. Speech probably evolved in order for bands of humans to get together and scavenge big dead animals. I would put my money on that. And when speech evolved for that, it had nothing to do with the elephant, which in its putrefaction, that’s not what anybody was doing. You were just going and getting that elephant and fighting off the hyenas. Nobody needed to talk the way The New Yorker is written. I think Robert LoBiondo will not be surprised at what I’m going to play now because we were talking about

S1: Goldilocks and there was a

S2: musical in 1959 called Goldilocks. It was about silent film. You can imagine how that went.

S1: However, it was a

S2: delightful score written by the same guy who did Leroy Anderson, who did my favorite Christmas Carol

S1: sleigh ride. And I’ve played a bit of the overture

S2: of this on the show before. Now we’re going to actually have one of the songs. This is the old. No, it’s called Give the Little Lady, this is Elaine Stritch singing for those of you who know who she is

S1: and it’s just catchy.

S2: Here’s give the little lady from the unfortunately titled and unfortunately faded musical Goldilocks.

S3: No tears for me, boys, I’ll tell you what, I’m going to give the boys the perfect lady the way


S4: I want to. Great ragtime group.

S3: My no honky tonk piano will do not its box for me yet the baby grabs a great big hand. I’m through pretending this iceman, who has found her happy ending the trunk I was born in is Adegbile. So you take the gay song for me. It’s gonna be big time. I find my way to the Promised Land. Me.

S1: By the way, give the little lady that was a catchphrase,

S2: Texas guyand was a speak easy proprietress and former actress who was famous in the 1920s for saying as people walked in, Hiya, suckers. That was one of two things that she was known for saying. The second thing she was known for saying was when she would bring women on to perform in these places, she’d say, give the little lady a great big hand. And so that’s what this is a take off of. So finally, there’s one other thing about English that is really not normal in terms of what language would have been like for a good two hundred and ninety thousand years before. Agriculture creates civilizations that create the need for extra land, which means that people start conquering each other and settling across vast territories. And what I mean by

S1: that is that English is too easy as witches

S2: go. And of course, English is a nightmare in many ways, but

S1: you should see what other languages are like. And that is especially

S2: often the case with groups that are particularly small and perhaps isolated. And so there is a pardonable intuition that you might have that languages spoken by people like that

S1: are maybe going to be less complicated

S2: because their lives are less involved with the horrible things that make our lives so difficult. And maybe they meet fewer people. And so maybe everything is going to take it relatively light in terms of grammatical structure. But no, it’s the other way around. If there is a small group of people living in relative isolation, you can be quite sure that their language is going to be so complicated that you can’t quite imagine how anybody could speak it. And that’s the way most languages would have been until the Neolithic Revolution. Some people have reconstructed and I’m almost certain that they’re right. And that


S1: means that a language that’s relatively straightforward,

S2: like English, that’s something that would only have happened later. So, for example, I’m looking right now at an old peanut strip and it’s Charlie Brown and Sally, and they’re talking about drawing. It’s my favorite of all the strips. And I’m just looking randomly at one panel. Charlie Brown says try drawing just one side and then fold it over and trace the other side. That’s an ordinary statement in English. Notice how few

S1: suffixes there are.

S2: So, for example, try drawing just one side and then fold it over and trace the other side, just that one suffix. That’s because English doesn’t have that much of that kind of thing. Nothing is tonal. It’s kind of one word at a time. There are intricacies in there that I could talk about, but it’s easy to think that a language is like that. Try drawing just one side and then fold it over and trace the other side. No, not at all. So an example, that’s one of my favorites. There’s a language called EOL. EOW is spoken in in New Guinea on the island of New Guinea, on the western part of Papua Side. And it’s

S1: only ever spoken by several hundred people at a

S2: time. And they are often monolingual. These are people who live in relative isolation.

S1: So here is what language normally is.

S2: You can think of it that way.

S1: You look at how this

S2: language works and you think it’s almost like they’re trying to make it unburnable. So EOW is mostly monosyllabic. The words

S1: are real short, and though it’s tonal, there are eight


S2: tones depending on how you count it. It’s tonal and the way the tones work is just dazzling. And so BA means to come. OK, now if you say ba

S1: that tone ba

S2: that means come right to a certain spot. So there’s the difference between come and come right to a certain spot and it’s not that is supposed to sound like somebody coming to a spot like something like that. No, it’s just arbitrary. But bop come

S1: ba

S2: come right to a certain spot then ba which is a third of eight tones ba that means to throw at so it doesn’t have anything to do with coming at all. OK, so let’s go to another syllable dot. That means to see. OK, now remember Pop was to come and ba was to come right to a certain spot.

S1: It is to see.

S2: So you’d think that it would mean to look right at something or something like that. No it means to

S1: have looked over so not look over but to have looked over.

S2: It’s perfect as in the perfect tense as in Elvis has left the room.

S1: So then you have dot

S2: in that c dot to have looked over now but meant to throw at it didn’t mean to come at all. But with di it does, it does have to do with the eyes. It’s to watch as opposed to just seeing it, watching it. And you just have to know one more dot is. Eight, as in, you know, having eaten. Now remember,

S1: pop is come, it is C, da is eight,

S2: not eat, but eight and you just have to know that it’s in the past tense,


S1: then DA is to have eaten. So it was to

S2: have looked over instead of to have seen. But whether it stays in the family so da eight da to have eaten da is to load something into a vehicle.

S1: This goes on and on and on. You just have to know.

S2: So notice it’s not just that the tones make these completely different words. And so it’s not about like, say, horse and mother and scold and hemp like in Mandarin.

S1: These tones are

S2: grammar to an extent.

S1: And so da eight da to have eaten.

S2: That’s how you conjugate the verbs, but then not always and you just have to know. And that was only three things. EOW goes on and on like that. Janet Bateman is the one who studied. L Imagine what it takes to study a language like this, to learn to halfway speak it and to know what people are saying who are mostly monolingual. It’s an astonishing thing that linguists like that do.

S1: So eow that’s normal

S2: as languages go and then all we’ve got is try drawing just one side and then fold it over and the other side. English is much easier than you’d expect.

S1: And so English is weird. As languages go. English is the

S2: best we can say is that it’s a very modern thing. What English is, is a new way of being, a language in many ways. All these numbers,

S1: all these Crayola colors, a vocabulary that’s so big

S2: that no one speaker knows anything like all the words,

S1: these tapeworm sentences. That’s weird. That is not the way

S2: languages were for most of when language existed. And then in being a language that doesn’t have that many suffixes to do, the kinds of things that say Spanish does with abelow, blah, blah, I talk, you talk or it talks.


S1: We have very little of that kind of

S2: thing and we’re not tonal.

S1: The truth is, if you look at languages around the world, most languages either

S2: knock you over with a whole lot of those sorts of conjugation or things, or crazy gender or usually

S1: both. Or if you don’t have

S2: that, it’s going to be tonal and it’s going to knock you over with the sorts of things that Chinese does. If you have neither one of those things, it’s not common in the world.

S1: And it usually means

S2: that it’s a language that a whole lot of adults had to learn for one reason or another. And so they made it easier. And that’s something that only started happening in any major way when agriculture and then technology allowed a group speaking some language to impose it on millions and millions of other people and have it settle and spread across

S1: vast parts of the planet. What this means is that English seems so

S2: normal to our parochial selves in some way.

S1: But actually, you know, English is English is a Creole

S2: of a kind of Africans in South Africa is what happened when Dutch was taken up by people indigenous to that area, as well as some people who are from Southeast Asia Africans is when Dutch gets a shave, essentially because of its history, Africans is considered to be a semi Creole language. It’s not a Creole like Samarkand, but it’s Samii.

S1: Creole, Dutch English for the exact same reason

S2: is a semi Creole Germanic language. And in our case, it’s two things. For one thing, the Vikings, starting in 1787 A.D. came over to England. NSA came as if I’m there. So they went over to England and they basically fucked up the language. They learned it the way adults learn it. And because there was no such thing essentially as print except for very few people, no such thing in school, no such thing as media.


S1: Little kids listen

S2: to their father speaking English that way, and they had no reason not to imitate him just as much as they would imitate their mother. Next thing you knew, crappy old English became what I’m speaking right now.

S1: So that happened. And then even before that, there’s something a little

S2: odd about Proteau Germanic, the language that would have later become German, English, Swedish, Icelandic, Dutch,

S1: etc. Even that language

S2: took it a little lighter than most early Indo-European languages did. And that ties into that topic that I addressed on a show not too long ago where I talked about this

S1: hypothesis,

S2: possibly unprovable, but always fascinating that Semitic language, Phoenician speakers sailed up around Europe and settled into what’s now Denmark and would have learned some kind of early proto Indo-European and made it, first of all, a little Semitic

S1: and then also probably a little easier.

S2: And proto Germanic is more streamlined in ways that would make sense if that’s what happened. But that would mean that English

S1: is the way it is, partly because of that

S2: if it happened. But then you can get the same thing from what the Vikings did to the language starting in the seven hundreds of

S1: C, this is

S2: a semi Creole language. That I’m speaking and as

S1: a result, it’s not the way

S2: language naturally was for most of its existence and

S1: still is in many places today. So isn’t it

S2: interesting to know that the thing that feels so normal to

S1: us is actually rather bizarre? In any case, if we’re

S2: talking about these issues of simplicity or complexity and the two things playing off against each other, the proper song is clearly one note. Samba, which is one of my favorite of the Jobim classics that America fell in love with starting in the 60s. And you’ll be able to hear why it’s called one note samba. And of course, the harmonies underneath are delicious and not one note in any way. The proper singer for this is if it’s not going to be somebody singing in Portuguese, it’s going to be Nancy Wilson because she’s always the proper singer. So this is the English lyric.


S1: We’re going to

S2: go out on one note Samba, because frankly, it’s just good. It’s just good.

S3: I. This is just a little stuff built up on a single note. Other notes are bound to follow,

S4: but the route is still left. No. Now, this new the just

S3: as I’m bound to see the unavoidable consequences

S4: of you that so many people and say nothing on the scale, I know anything and I

S3: nearly nothing. So I come back to my first notes as I must come back to you. I will for

S2: now. You can reach us at Lexicon Valley, at Slate Dotcom, that’s

S1: Lexicon

S2: Valley at Slate dot com, to listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out, go to Slate Dotcom Lexicon Valley 029. Nasty Words. My new book Coming in May. The final chapter is a brief exploration of Motherfucker and of this show. Mike Volo is, as always, the editor. I had to I’m sorry and I am John McWhorter something.

S3: So I go back to my first note

S4: as I’m just coming back to you. I look forward to that one. No love. I feel for you. Anyone who watched

S3: the whole show. Really? He would find himself with no show better than no. You know, he will find himself with no show about a flavanols, you know.

S1: For this episode, Slate plus, I want to return

S2: to something else that I’ve actually done a show about, and that is numbers. Remember, sometime after roughly the French and Indian War, I did a show about no, some of you may not remember that because it was a while ago,


S1: but it was, if

S2: I may, I think it was a pretty fun show. But there are some things that I did not get to.

S1: And so by way

S2: of repeating something I mentioned in that show,

S1: one, two,

S2: three, four, five, that’s technically not right. There’s something wrong with four. We kind of like that four and five begin with the same sound. But really they shouldn’t because really think about things like quarter those other four words that you have in Europe, that’s the way it’s

S1: supposed to be. Proteau Indo European

S2: that Ukraine and granddaddy steps language the word for four and that

S1: was

S2: wetware. So you get quarter in and is Gatland, Spanish ciguatera, et cetera.

S1: So what are we doing with the the four really. It should be roughly

S2: if English developed in this word normally from Proteau into European, it should be something like whored frankly, but not

S1: for the reason it’s for is because

S2: five was coming up and people say numbers quickly and a lot and you’d like them to fit together better than they do. And so instead of it being war, it became four. Actually, this happened way back in Proteau, Germanic already. Then you have Fed Duross and really that should be something like Huete warez or something like that.

S1: So four is wrong.

S2: It should be whored, but we say four or five because that makes the numbers easier to say.

S1: There’s another

S2: example of that goes a little further afield, but we use my favorite other language, Russian, and there’s

S1: something in that that’s always a little weird.


S2: So six, seven, eight, nine, 10

S1: schist sem Vossoughian. Yes, yes, yes, yes.

S2: OK, yes, yes, yes, yes. Nine, ten now. Yes, yes. You know that’s normal because it sounds like Spanish is this. That’s a normal word for ten. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But why are nine and ten kind of similar. So you have dissociates for ten and then nine is derivates

S1: really don’t really sound

S2: like any nine that we’re used to. You know, what that is, is the same thing as the four and the five thing.

S1: That word digits should be Nevius

S2: and that would come from knive and that would come from proto Indo Europeans word, which was roughly known. And that’s where we get all of our Nyoni words. So it would have been something

S1: like yes, yes, yes. But because yes, that’s what’s coming up.

S2: There is this tendency to make the nine before it sound more like it. And next thing you know, you have that strange little likeness between digits. And yes, that’s where you’re wondering what a deviates even. Is that neat? So numbers do that. You can find examples like that in numbers around the world. I’m trying to look like each other. And while we’re on the numbers hundred, the original word was just Hunde.

S1: The red is a suffix, believe

S2: it or not. The red roughly means condition or how much of something there is, how many of something there is originally at that it’s counting. And so the condition of being a hand and a Hunde is what it originally was. And if you’re wondering, well, what kind of suffix is read, well, think about

S1: Kindred, that’s

S2: kin. And then the state of being your kin or all of your kin, all those kin that you can count as your kindred. And then there’s really only one other living example, hatred. The condition of hate is instead of hate or something like that, it’s hatred and so hatred. Kindred hundred. There is a perfect example of a very dead suffix. But now you know

S1: that it’s there because you use it

S2: all the time, except you use it in the form of a gap mouth skeleton hanging off of the end of living. What a terrible analogy.

S1: Anyway, that’s your slate plus for this episode.