A while back I got M.J. Harper’s The Secret History of the English Language in the mail from Melville House, its publisher. I didn’t have time to read it, but I flipped through it and noted that it purported to be claiming that Middle English never existed and that English was the ancestor of the Romance languages, among other things so silly I assumed it couldn’t be serious. I was cheered by the blurb “The best rewriting of history since 1066 and All That” (from the Fortean Times); I thought “1066 and All That is a damn funny book, and I could use a good laugh,” so I looked forward to reading it when I got the chance.
Well, I learn from Sally Thomason at Language Log (and the follow-up by Mark Liberman) that it’s not a joke at all: Harper is serious about all that nonsense. The blurb at Amazon.com, presumably written by the author, reads:
In a hugely enjoyable read, not to mention gloriously corrosive prose, M.J. Harper slashes and burns through the whole of accepted academic thought about the history of the English language. According to Harper: The English language does not derive from an Anglo-Saxon language. French, Italian, and Spanish did not descend from Latin. Middle English is a wholly imaginary language created by well-meaning but deluded academics. Most of the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary are wrong. And that’s just the beginning. Part revisionist history, part treatise on the origins of the English language, and part impassioned argument against academia, The Secret History of the English Language is essential reading for language lovers, history buffs, Anglophiles, and anyone who has ever thought twice about what they’ve learned in school.
Now, I have nothing against crackpots; throughout history they’ve provided harmless amusement for the rest of us. I don’t even blame the publishers who put out the stuff without a proper warning label—they’re just trying to make a buck, putting it all on the market and seeing if anyone will buy it. No, I blame the professional reviewers who take the nonsense seriously. The New Statesman, for example, says:
Unusual, funny and provocative, Harper wears his learning lightly, but has a serious point to make. While admitting that his own theories about the early Brits “may or may not be acceptable”, he warns that historical anomalies are routinely ignored by the academics we rely on to explain our past. Whatever your stance on the Anglo-Saxons (and Harper’s suggestions are rather seductive), this fascinating book is a useful investigation into the ways in which history is constructed and the dangers of “unassailable” academic truths.
If the book were claiming that Queen Elizabeth was the illegitimate son of Rasputin, or that mixing salt and sugar provides an inexhaustible source of energy that will replace oil and gas, no one would take it seriously; if it were reviewed at all, it would be as an example of how absolutely anything can get published. But equivalent nonsense about language is reviewed respectfully, and it makes me despair. Sally Thomason takes consolation from the fact that good books are also being published (and I certainly look forward to David Crystal’s The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left), but such books have been published for many years, and they don’t seem to make much of a dent. People just don’t want to think sensibly about language.