THE BOOKSHELF: OUR MAGNIFICENT BASTARD TONGUE.

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English, by John McWhorter, is an enjoyable but odd book. It’s basically a combination of two items, each of which would ideally be very slim: a primer on descriptivist views of language (no, English isn’t going to hell in a handbasket), and a popularization of McWhorter’s work on creolization and the history of English. The latter takes up most of the book, and it is, to my mind, overwritten and unnecessarily repetitive. For instance, here’s a précis of the first chapter: English “meaningless do” (as in “Do you think so?”) and the progressive tense (“he is going”) are hard to explain in terms of the other Germanic languages. Interestingly, both are present in Welsh and Cornish, descendants of the Celtic languages spoken in England when the Germanic speakers arrived. It seems likely that English picked it up from the version of the language spoken by Celtic speakers.
Makes sense, right? And it’s presented in a lively fashion (sometimes too lively for this old fogey—McWhorter has a fondness for formulations like “shitte happens”). The problem is that the first chapter goes on for sixty pages, and doesn’t really say much more than I put in those three sentences. The chapter draws to a close with a labored parallel about “people we will call the Robinsons and the Joneses”; the former “have developed an unusual deftness in playing the piano with their feet,” and it happens that the Joneses “have the same skill.” Why, the Robinsons must have gotten it from the Joneses! The thing is, though, that if you haven’t bought his argument based on the actual facts of the case, you’re not likely to buy it because of this bizarre fable of podalic pianists.
I don’t mean to say there’s nothing worth reading besides the basic argument; for instance, he makes the interesting point (borrowed from Andrew Dalby) that “if Welsh were, say, for some reason regularly taught in schools across Western Europe and in America, as French and Spanish are, then to linguists, raised with ‘schoolboy’ Welsh, the parallels between Celtic and English would seem glaringly obvious and would long ago have been accepted as having a causal rather than correlative relationship.” I personally would have welcomed more of this sort of insight and less hammering on a few ideas (some of which aren’t as convincing to me as the Celtic-influence one), but of course I’m not the target market. This would be a good book to give anyone interested in the history of English who enjoys this kind of popular writing.

Comments

  1. Interesting review. ^^

  2. Or English and Welsh could have evolved similar features in parallel in close contact. Compare the Balkan Sprachbund.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    English and Welsh could have evolved similar features in parallel in close contact
    caffeind, that could be the case if the features in question were limited to English and Welsh, but they occur in the other Celtic languages as well, although not in the other Germanic languages, so it is much more likely that “English borrowed” a Celtic feature. This actually means that Celtic speakers switching to English carried a useful feature of their first language into their version of English, and this feature was preserved by their English-speaking descendants.
    In the Balkan Sprachbund there is or was a different situation, closer to that found in parts of India, with several languages coexisting in a relatively small area, but none of them being overwhelmingly dominant in the general area. In such a situation where many people are bilingual or multilingual, the grammar (morpholoogy and especially syntax) tends to become more and more uniform over the several languages, even though the vocabularies remain distinct.

  4. There are other English-and-Welsh effects that do look reciprocal, though. Consider the preservation of all of þ, ð and w in English and Welsh alone among the Germanic and Celtic languages; indeed, most of their living relatives have lost all three.
    Here’s Tolkien on the subject of Welsh influence on English, from his lecture “English and Welsh” (macrons changed to acutes for ease of typing):
    As an example of a curious parallelism I will mention a peculiar feature of the Old English substantive verb, the modern ‘be’. This had two distinct forms of the ‘present’: A, used only of the actual present, and B, used only as a future or consuetudinal. The B functions were expressed by forms beginning with b-, which did not appear in the true present: thus, bío, bist, biþ pl. bíoþ. The meaning of biþ was ‘is (naturally, always, or habitually)’ or ‘will be’.
    Now this system is peculiar to Old English. It is not found in any other Germanic language, not even in those most closely related to English. The association with the b-forms of two different functions that have no necessary logical connexion is also notable. But I mention this feature of Old English morphology here only because the same distinction of functions is associated with similar phonetic forms in Welsh.
    In Welsh one finds a true present without b-forms, and a tense with a b-stem used both as a future and a consuetudinal[21]. The 3 sg. of the latter tense is bydd from earlier *biþ[22]. The resemblance between this and the OE form is perhaps made more remarkable if we observe that the short vowel of OE is difficult to explain and cannot be a regular development from earlier Germanic, whereas in Welsh it is regularly derived.
    This similarity may be dismissed as accidental. The peculiarity of OE may be held to depend simply on preservation in the English dialect of a feature later lost in others; the anomalous short vowel of bist and biþ may be explained as analogical[23]. The OE verb is in any case peculiar in other ways not paralleled by Welsh (the 2 sg. of the true present earþ, later eart, is not found outside English). It will still remain notable, none the less, that this preservation occurred in Britain and in a point in which the usage of the native language agreed. It will be a morphological parallel to the phonetic agreement, noted above, seen in the English preservation of þ and w.
    But this is not the full story. The Northumbrian dialect of Old English uses as the plural of tense B; the form biþun, bioþun. Now this must be an innovation developed on British soil. Its invention was strictly unnecessary (since the older plural remained sufficiently distinct from the singular), and its method of formation was, from the point of view of English morphology, wholly anomalous[24]. Its similarity (especially in apparent relation to the 3 sg.) to Welsh byddant is obvious. (The still closer Welsh 1 pl. byddwn would not have had, probably, this inflexion in Old Welsh.)
    Tolkien’s footnotes:
    [21] The association of these two dissimilar functions is again notable. Old Irish uses b-forms in these two functions, but distinguishes between future and consuetudinal in inflexion. The Welsh tense (byddaf &c.) as a whole blends the two functions, though the older language had also a form of the 3sg bid (bit) limited to consuetudinal use. The difference of functions is not yet fully realized by Anglo-Saxon scholars. The older dictionaries and grammars ignore it, and even in recent grammars it is not clearly stated; the consuetudinal is usually overlooked, though traces of it survive in English as late as the language of Chaucer (in beth as consuetudinal sg. and pl.)
    [22] The Irish, Welsh, and English forms relate to older bí, bij (cf. Latin fís, fit, &c.). The development from bij to bið in Welsh is due to a consonantal strengthening of j which began far back in British. When ij reached the stage is not known, but a date about A.D. 500 seems probable.
    [23] The influence of the short i in the forms of the true present might be held responsible. In a pre-English stage these would have been im, is, ist (is).
    [24] The addition of a plural ending (normally belonging to the past tense) to an inflected form of the 3sg. In this way biðun differs from the extended form sindum made from the old pl. sind. The latter was already pl. and its ending -nd could not be recognized as an inflexion, whereas the -ið of bið was the normal ending of the 3sg.

  5. Then there is Charles-James N. Bailey, who “raises… questions about the analysis of English grammar—… questions that inter alia make improbable the surmise that English has got a Germanic system of grammar, questions that indeed cannot be satisfactorily dealt with when setting out from that premise.”
    But he is talking about a completely different ballgame.

  6. It’s entirely plausible that English absorbed old British/Brythonic features, but then it’s slightly odd that it absorbed so little vocabulary.

  7. mollymooly says:

    “It’s entirely plausible that English absorbed old British/Brythonic features, but then it’s slightly odd that it absorbed so little vocabulary.”
    When you are speaking a foreign language as a tourist, the locals can make a lot of allowances for your butchering of the grammar, but you need to know the salient vocabulary to be understood.
    Note: in this analogy, the “tourists” are Welsh, the “locals” are Anglo-Saxon. I don’t mean to insult the intelligence of regular readers, but the spammers might have difficulties.

  8. it’s slightly odd that it absorbed so little vocabulary.
    He goes into considerable length about this, discussing the circumstances under which languages borrow more or less vocabulary.

  9. Richard Hershberger says:

    I didn’t finish the book. My problems include those LH mentions. I also found that this was not the book I had expected. I understood going in that it was something along the lines of a history of English with am emphasis on grammar and syntax rather than vocabulary. I would have really enjoyed that book. Instead I got a book pushing McWhorter’s pet theory. That isn’t necessarily a bad book, but it wasn’t a “history of English” as promised.
    I also am generally skeptical of books intended for a general audience pushing controversial pet theories of the author.
    As for the pet theory itself, I have always understood the English “meaningless-do” as fitting into the larger development of auxiliary verb structures, and in particular the pattern forming questions by moving the subject between the auxiliary and the main verb (and negation by putting “not” in that position). The “meaningless-do” serves as a dummy place holder for the auxiliary position, when it is otherwise empty. It isn’t hard to see how this might develop as a secondary effect of the word order pattern.
    It may well be that I have this entirely wrong, or it fails to fully explain the phenomenon, or it isn’t inconsistent with McWhorter’s thesis. As I began to run out of steam reading the book I looked ahead to see if there was any discussion of this. Maybe it is in there and I missed it. If I can be directed to the correct place, I would be happy to give the book another shot.

  10. I also found that this was not the book I had expected. I understood going in that it was something along the lines of a history of English with am emphasis on grammar and syntax rather than vocabulary. I would have really enjoyed that book. Instead I got a book pushing McWhorter’s pet theory. That isn’t necessarily a bad book, but it wasn’t a “history of English” as promised.
    Yes, this was part of my response as well, and I thank you for putting it so clearly and succinctly.
    It isn’t hard to see how this might develop as a secondary effect of the word order pattern.
    Well, but it’s not all that easy either; his point is that it’s a lot easier to assume it got picked up from Celtic, where it’s right there for the taking.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    I haven’t read the book, and the only one of MacWhorter’s works that I have read is The power of Babel, which I liked very much overall as a popular introduction to historical linguistics but which had a number of inaccuracies: for instance, he wrote about the Norman conquest and what happened to English “after the departure of the French” – but the conquerors were not “the French” (although they spoke French), and more to the point, they never left, but got absorbed into the local population.
    MacWhorter specializes in Creole languages, which are mixed languages resulting from specific situations. Typical Creoles are the Haitian vernacular, with a vocabulary based on French, and Tok Pisin in New Guinea, with a vocabulary based on English. MW is alert to the possibilities of language mixture, but he is not a specialist in the history of English or any other language.
    There is quite a lot of scholarly discussion on the possible influence of Celtic languages on English, and MW is hardly the first person to propose it, but the hypothesis is still debated. There is also recent scholarship on language contact and the conditions of borrowing of specific parts of a language (eg vocabulary, morphology, syntax) according to conditions of social contact. Standard English is based on the dialects of Southeastern England, especially the London area, which are the farthest away from areas which remained Celtic-speaking (Wales, Cornwall). Sources such as the Venerable Bede (yes, he himself) state clearly that the Angles, etc basically cleared out the local populations in the areas they colonized, so much so that there are hardly any Celtic toponyms left there (as opposed to, for instance, the large number of Celtic toponyms in France, coupled with the small number of other words of Celtic origin in French): any Celtic speakers who escaped massacre and were not able to flee (for instance into Brittany, which was settled by refugees from across the Channel) would have been enslaved, and the masters would not have tried to speak like their slaves. The verb forms quoted by Tolkien, dating from a time when there were several literary dialects (not just that of London), one of them closer to Wales so that there might be some possibility of influence (or of preservation by Celtic speakers of useful forms from their native language ), have not spread and survived into Modern English. The fact that sounds like th and w are found in both Welsh and English is not at all a reliable indication of mutual influence. As for “do”, it has not always been meaningless, and its obligatory use in English is relatively recent: Shakespeare, for instance, does not use it all the time.
    I am not saying that the hypothesis should be rejected out of hand, but I would not accept MW’s word for it without reading not only what he but what other scholars have to say. For some sources bearing on the subject, there are references at the bottom of the Brythonic languages article in Wikipedia . I recommend the link to “Invisible Britons” (a fairly short article, which quotes Bede), and its bibliography. Brythonic (sometimes Brittonic or British) is the name given to the old Celtic language ancestral to Welsh, Cornish and Breton, which was spoken in what is now England and Wales before the Germanic conquest and the resultant flight of some Britons to Brittany, where their descendants (Bretons) still live and the language still has speakers.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    (Sorry, I can never remember whether it’s Mac or Mc. So it is Mc).

  13. Generic studies seem to indicate only elite replacement with the Anglo-Saxon invasions. Bede may have been talking about a local situation, or merely overdramatizing.
    The masters would not have tried to speak like their slaves
    In situations of this kind, the slave class usually has cultural power via the kitchen and nursery.
    However, if it was a one-way arrow, and all slaves learned Anglo Saxon while no masters learned Celtic, that might account for grammatical effects without word-borrowing, if slaves got in the habit of using recognizably A-S terms while altering the grammar.
    Of course, my two points conflict.

  14. Of course, my two points conflict.
    Let them fight it out with broadswords.

  15. the progressive tense (“he is going”)…hard to explain in terms of the other Germanic languages
    Progressive (continuous) tenses in Spanish are not that different from the ones in English. Perhaps the Spaniards picked them up from, uh, remnants of Celtic speakers in Brittany?

  16. mollymooly says:

    (Sorry, I can never remember whether it’s Mac or Mc. So it is Mc)
    I still feel a twinge of surprise when furriners pay attention to this. Mc and Mac are collated together in Irish phone books. It’s usually Mc, but of my many friends and cousins with Mc/Mac surnames I couldn’t swear to the choice of any. In fact I’m not sure they could themselves: some alternate between e.g. Sweeney and M(a)cSweeney. Or English and Irish. I don’t think any would view the “wrong” spelling in the same way as, say, spelling a Catherine Smyth’s name “Katharine Smith”.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Concerning “meaningless do“, in Shakespeare and especially the King James Bible it often (and unpredictably, as far as I can tell) occurs in ordinary sentences where it would mean strong emphasis today.
    In such random usage, it can also be found in nonstandard German (interestingly without being especially common or rare in any particular region – it’s associated with elementary-school children everywhere). Compare the prescriptivist advice against it, “tun” tut man nicht, with the snarky response to it, “tun” tut man nicht tun.
    It’s also the only way to conjugate certain peculiar verbs. For example, there’s a verb that means “to perform an emergency landing”; it has an infinitive (notlanden) and a past participle (notgelandet), which means it also has a future, a “present perfect” and a past perfect tense, but the rest is just lacking in the standard (the two options, separating the prefix or not doing it, both sound equally strange and ungrammatical). Outside of it, “do” is used to circumvent that problem: ich tu notlanden, du tust notlanden….

    Progressive (continuous) tenses in Spanish

    Like what for example?

  18. Genetic evidence has been quoted both for and against replacement. Oppenheimer’s argument does not seem particularly strong; he notes that genetic similarity across the North Sea can be due to earlier (or later) migrations than the Anglo-Saxons.
    If you haven’t read marie-lucie’s Invisible Britons yet, its conclusion on page 17 is that the lack of Brythonic loans into English disproves the elite dominance hypothesis, and that the Britons must have been largely gone from eastern England when the Anglo-Saxons settled there.
    Is a Völkerwanderung plausible given lack of similar replacing mass migrations before and after? Consider people’s behavior today with jobs and houses; they will hang on to the current one for years pending availability and affordability of better, then when the economy improves there is a rush of people changing and a chain reaction as others fill the vacancies created. The Dark Ages were a low point in population that created vacant places. In overpopulated times the Britons would have had no place to flee from civil strife and then invaders; in underpopulated times they were welcomed elsewhere.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    David,
    In Spanish you can say Tomo café ‘I drink coffee’ (habitually) or Estoy tomando café ‘I am having coffee’ (right now), pretty much as in English (using as auxiliary the verb estar which here means ‘to be (temporarily)’.
    Similarly,
    Italian forms a continuous aspect in much the same way as in English, using a present tense conjugation of the verb stare (“to be”) followed by the gerund of the main verb….. For example: Sto leggendo (“I am reading”). (Wikipedia: Continuous and progressive aspect).
    In Old French there was a similar construction with the verb aller ‘to go’ as the auxiliary, which later disappeared and is now only found in the words of some old traditional folk songs, as in le fils du roi s’en va chassant ‘the king’s son is going a-hunting’. Old French is considered to be syntactically more Germanic than the modern language, and I don’t remember any suggestion that Gaulish (Celtic) syntax had had any influence on Gallo-Romance (the form taken by Late Latin in Gaul).

  20. marie-lucie says:

    marie-lucie’s Invisible Britons
    The author is Robert Coates, who references several of his own works related to the topic.
    the Britons must have been largely gone from eastern England when the Anglo-Saxons settled there
    This is not the impression I got from the article: the Anglo-Saxons were instrumental in getting rid of the Britons. But the author also mentions a dip in European populations in general at the time, perhaps caused by some climatic event which caused some famines.

  21. We have progressive (continuous) aspect in Norman as well (commonly, verb be + infinitive). This is assumed by some to be due to contact with English.

  22. Molly,
    That’s interesting. I don’t think the Scots take such a relaxed attitude to the spelling of their name, do they?

  23. Damn, I could have written ‘Mcname’ if I’d thought of it in time.

  24. Richrad Hershberger says:

    Me: “It isn’t hard to see how this might develop as a secondary effect of the word order pattern.”
    LH: “Well, but it’s not all that easy either; his point is that it’s a lot easier to assume it got picked up from Celtic, where it’s right there for the taking.”
    My thought (which could be completely implausible) is that once you have a pattern of forming questions with [auxiliary verb]-[subject]-[main verb] when you have an auxiliary verb available, it is a small step to adding one as a dummy placeholder when you otherwise don’t. English is clearly comfortable with such things, as with the expletive “it” in constructions such as “It is raining.” This still leaves us with the coincidence that both English and Welsh settled on “do” in this construction, but this is a much smaller coincidence than if the English form had simply appeared out of the blue.
    I don’t reject McWhorter’s thesis out of hand. I just come away with the feeling that a creole guy is likely to find creoles everywhere. Coming away as I do unconvinced based on my semi-informed reading, I also have the feeling that someone who really knows the subject could make short work of this. I would love to read an informed rebuttal.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    LH: it’s a lot easier to assume it got picked up from Celtic, where it’s right there for the taking.”
    You don’t pick up syntax from a language you don’t know, especially if it is the language of a people you consider socially inferior (as the Welsh were for a long time) and whose language you have no reason to want to learn. Even if you didn’t actually learn the language, you would have to have enough contact with bilingual speakers who carried over distinct syntactic patterns from their first language for those patterns to become natural to you, but if the language were stigmatized, those patterns would be too, and dominant language speakers would avoid them.
    Syntactic borrowing would mean that there was a high degree of bilingualism on the part not only of the Welsh but of the English at the relevant time (when the structure appears in English), and not just in the border area. But in that case there should be a lot more evidence of language contact, especially in vocabulary.
    RH: I also have the feeling that someone who really knows the subject could make short work of this. I would love to read an informed rebuttal.
    As I wrote above, McWhorter is hardly the first person to suggest Celtic influence on English, or Phoenician or at least Mediterranean influence on Germanic (a more recent, less well-known proposal). But his work is a popular one, and scholars who have been writing for other scholars are unlikely to write rebuttals aimed at the public, since rebuttals have to rest on more detailed technical linguistic information than non-linguists want to read – and unfortunately, writing a popular book is not often a smart career move if you are in academia (where MW no longer is, but that is not a reflection on his abilities).
    What I liked about MW’s earlier book The power of Babel was his enthusiasm for the subject, knowledge of popular culture and sense of humour, which could make people want to learn more, so I recommended it to several non-linguist friends in spite of its inaccuracies, but I wouldn’t rely on it for serious factual information. The new book may be useful for the same purpose: not as a reference work, but as an inspiration to learn more.
    Instead of rebuttals to this particular work, you can find discussions of the topic in some of the references in the article I cited, “Invisible Britons”.

  26. M-L, I think that the argument is that the forms came from native Celtic speakers speaking Anglo-Saxon. I know that some Irishisms in English have been credited to the influence of Irish Gaelic, not just vocabulary but grammatical forms.

  27. JE is right about the argument, but I’m certainly not claiming it’s correct, just more plausible to me than coincidence.

  28. Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons were, like the Icelanders, scrupulous about not borrowing foreign words, but less aware of Celtic grammatical forms creeping in.

  29. So progressive tenses exist in English, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, some dialects of German, Norman, Spanish, Italian, and Old French, which is “syntactically more Germanic than the modern language”…what about Latin?

  30. Some of the Irish with Mc/Mac names have lost their M’s altogether, but they nonetheless cling to their C’s quite firmly, producing aphetic names like “Cowan”.

  31. what about Latin?
    Yes, there are examples in Late Latin of stare (‘stand’, but leading to Spanish estar ‘be’) with a gerundive.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    In Spanish you can say [...]

    Ah, thanks.
    Modern French has être en train de, “to be at [doing stuff] at the moment”, which is vaguely similar but not quite as grammaticalized.

    So progressive tenses exist in [...] some dialects of German

    What? Who said that?
    I mentioned German, but for “meaningless do” (that is, all the conjugation being moved to an added “do”, while the verb itself is left in the infinitive), not for a progressive aspect. German is aspect-free zone. (…Which must be why, I’m told, all the world’s greatest authorities on aspect are Germans.)

    …Yes, there are examples in Late Latin of stare (‘stand’, but leading to Spanish estar ‘be’) with a gerundive.

    Hey cool. In Classical Latin there’s no trace of that.

  33. Okay, not German then, it’s a long thread and I was trying to put a bunch of details in a row so they made some sense, (English “do” for questions is really hard to teach to Hispanics) but how do other languages differentiate actions that are habitual from actions that are happening right now? Google tells me “aspect” has to do with the using “have” as a auxiliary verb.
    there are examples in Late Latin
    Instead of asking why some languages have continuous (progressive) tenses, should we be asking instead why some languages have lost them?

  34. David Marjanović says:

    how do other languages differentiate actions that are habitual from actions that are happening right now?

    In lots of different ways; German is pretty much alone in not marking that difference at all.

    Google tells me “aspect” has to do with the using “have” as a auxiliary verb.

    …That might be related to the fact that the difference between the past tense and the present perfect tense is one of aspect.
    Just go here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_aspect

  35. German: “Ich bin Kaffee am kochen.” or “Ich bin am Kaffeekochen.” It’s still regarded as nonstandard, but pretty common, and some even consider teaching it.
    Re “tun” tut man nicht: “Ich tu machen” (or even “Ich tu machen tun”) is kiddyspeak. My kindergartner used to say “Tuten tun nur die Autos”, but that didn’t impress us. I only started conjugating verbs when I noticed it makes you sound like a grownup.

  36. Thanks D.M., the idea that “Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects” sends me into a zen-like Sapir-Whorf contemplation of the possible metaphysical side effects of their grammar.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    English formally marks some aspects too: the progressive (marked by be … ing (which could also be called durative) and the perfective (marked by have …ed/been/etc). How does that translate into “metaphysical side effects”?

  38. Yes, considering that ancient Chinese was grammatically different from the modern language, anyway.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    German: “Ich bin Kaffee am kochen.”

    What? Where?

    “Ich bin am Kaffeekochen.”

    That works, but sounds worse than ich bin gerade am Kaffeekochen (with “right now” added), ich bin beim Kaffeekochen, which implies that you make coffee at that time of the day every day, or ich bin gerade beim Kaffeekochen; and I think I’d use ich koche gerade Kaffee considerably more often than all other possibilities if I actually drank coffee.
    I think I’m trying to say there’s no minimal pair. The construction exists, but it doesn’t mean anything different than one or two other constructions.
    In the page you link to, examples 3 and 4 belong on Failblog; the German version of 4 does mean that he’s finished cutting wood, but the German version of 3 is completely ambiguous, while the Russian one is unambiguously imperfective. 6 strikes me as ungrammatical… 7 is incomplete; it needs context, for instance weil sie immer am Heulen war, wenn ich gerade zu ihr kam “because she was always crying when I came to (visit) her”… but if it gets that context, it does come close to a progressive aspect. Hm. 8a and 8b I just wouldn’t say; I’d say ich mache gerade Aufgabe*. 9 is fine, it expresses either “we’re in the process of winning = we’ll win soon” or “we keep winning (repetitively), of which the first option can also be expressed by just wir gewinnen (gerade). 10 can be replaced by ich verhungere ja. 11 needs context. 12 is somewhat absurd, I’d say it wears a big flashy sign with “GERMANY” on it around its neck. I agree that 13 is not possible. Under table 1 it says French has no aspect system (in the present, I suppose) or progressive construction; but what about être en train de? Isn’t that very similar to the am construction?
    Of course, my dialect has the advantage that gerade has one syllable rather than three. But that’s the case in most kinds of spoken German.
    * Austrian instead of German term for homework.

    “Ich tu machen” (or even “Ich tu machen tun”) is kiddyspeak.

    Yes.

    I only started conjugating verbs when I noticed it makes you sound like a grownup.

    Wow! That’s a rather extreme case! :-)

    “Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le [...] to mark the perfective [...]“

    Worse. le is the change-of-state particle. It’s used for the perfective aspect – but it’s also used for the opposite, something that has just started: if you look out of the window and notice it’s now raining, while last time you looked it was not, the thing to say is xiàyǔ le, where xiàyǔ is the verb “rain”, composed of the noun “rain, , and “down”, xià.
    My Chinese hasn’t progressed any further, so I can’t tell for sure, but without context you’re probably lost.

    ancient Chinese was grammatically different from the modern language

    And Classical Chinese is a highly abbreviated written style that was never spoken that way in the first place. Hence its extremely succinct expressions like (in modern Standard Mandarin pronunciation…) dào kě dào fēi cháng dào – “[the] dào [that] can [be called] dào [is] not [the] long/eternal dào”.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    What? Where?

    (Apparently somewhere along the Rhine.)

  41. marie-lucie says:

    it says French has no aspect system (in the present, I suppose) or progressive construction; but what about être en train de? Isn’t that very similar to the am construction?
    There is no grammaticalized progressive aspect in French in the sense that there is no verb form dedicated to this particular aspect as there is in English. There is an imperfective aspect in the past, as in Spanish/ Italian/Occitan/ Portuguese, etc, typified by the imparfait tense. The grammatical term Imperfective covers several different “semantic aspects” associated with the formally marked “grammatical aspect”. In all these languages the compound tenses indicate the completive aspect. The two aspects can be combined in some cases.
    Etre en train de (faire..” means “to be in the middle of (doing …). You could say it is semi-grammaticalized, but it indicates a semantic rather than a grammatical aspect. It is not as versatile as the imparfait, since it cannot be used with all the same meanings or with all the same verbs.

  42. In the real world of real language, translating “aspect” between languages is subject to more variation than one might expect. I once did a rather unpenetrating look at how un oiseau qui meurt (‘a dying bird’) has been translated into Japanese and Chinese. You might expect at least a certain amount of uniformity for something as simple as qui meurt or ‘dying’; instead there were all kinds of variation.

  43. Wow, those are fascinating discussions, and I recommend everyone follow the links. Who knew it could be so hard to translate “dying bird”?

  44. marie-lucie says:

    To me, un oiseau qui meurt and un oiseau mourant are not quite the same thing, and translating the first phrase into English is not that simple. It means either “a bird that dies” (something that might happen) or “a bird that is [in the process] of dying”, suggesting that you are watching or at least imagining the process. The second phrase could be just a description of the “dying bird”: as you go by, you notice a bird, understand that it is at about to die, but don’t stay to watch the process to its completion. You could see or make a picture or sculpture of un oiseau mourant, but not of un oiseau qui meurt, which could only be captured in a medium that involves time and movement, such as film, music or dance.

  45. English formally marks some aspects too: the progressive (marked by be … ing (which could also be called durative) and the perfective (marked by have …ed/been/etc). How does that translate into “metaphysical side effects”?
    So English is missing “experiential aspects”? Sort of like we are missing the sense of “Being In The Now” (don’t remember what 60s thing that phrase came from, probably something about either inhabitants of the bush or pygmies). That’s probably why Dr. Phil aways has to say “How do you really feel?” The metaphysics of that is totally beyond me.

  46. marie-lucie says:

    So English is missing “experiential aspects”?
    Not knowing Chinese, I don’t know what is meant by “experiential aspects”, but they seem to be grammatical categories. A grammatical category is one that you have to indicate in some formal manner every time you use a given type of word to which the category applies. For instance, in English if you are talking about a single human being, it is very difficult to avoid a mention of “gender”, because “he” and “she” are the only choices (the unisex “they” being frowned upon for the singular, even though most people use it daily in conversation precisely when they cannot make a choice). Every time you use an English verb, you need to mention whether it relates to the present or the past. A language that does not have these categories is not unable to specify the “gender” of a person, or the “tense” of a verb, if these indications are relevant, it just does not have to: it only does it when there might be uncertainty otherwise. For instance, if you read a work of history, even a fictional one, written in at least the majority if not all of the European languages, almost every single verb will be in the past tense, even though the work would be perfectly understandable (although odd) if written in the present tense with a few dates or other time specifications sprinkled here and there to keep track of the time. This is because the grammar of the languages forces you to mention relentlessly that the action is in the past. This seems perfectly ordinary to a speaker of English, French, Russian, etc, but it must seem like overkill to a speaker of Chinese, who might deduce that Europeans and their linguistic descendants are metaphysically obsessed by the passage of time, like the Maya were supposed to be because for a long time the only things that could be read in their inscriptions were calendar dates.

  47. Thank you, marie-lucie. I will fix up the explanation soon. That sentence Je sentais battre son cœur comme celui d’un oiseau qui meurt, quand on l’a tiré à la carabine. actually has a lot of issues in translation — how big was the bird, what kind of gun was used, what is a dying bird’s heartbeat like, who is the shooter on? — all of which have an effect the literary impact of the sentence.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    Unknown Chinese characters: I can see that translating that whole sentence would be quite a job, and why un oiseau qui meurt would seem at first sight like the least of your worries.

  49. David Marjanović says:

    Etre en train de (faire..” means “to be in the middle of (doing …). You could say it is semi-grammaticalized, but it indicates a semantic rather than a grammatical aspect. It is not as versatile as the imparfait, since it cannot be used with all the same meanings or with all the same verbs.

    So you’re probably confirming it’s “very similar to the am construction”. :-)

  50. marie-lucie says:

    DM: So you’re probably confirming it’s “very similar to the am construction”. :-)
    I did not say it was not “similar”, because it is, but “similar” does not mean “equivalent”. Their meanings overlap to a certain extent, but it is not as fully grammaticalized as that construction and cannot be used with all verbs or in all circumstances where you could use the to be … ing construction. As I already said, être en train de is more like to be in the middle of …ing, which cannot always replace the simpler construction.
    For instance, take the situation of a group of people ordering food in a restaurant. The server asks each person “What will you have?” and they reply in the future. When the plates are brought, the server says “Who is having the …?”, even though nobody is eating yet. “Who is in the middle of having the …?” would be impossible in this situation, and so would “Qui est en train de prendre …?”

  51. John Cowan says:

    For the record, “浴衣” is Bathrobe.

    It’s unclear whether perfective le (a verbal particle) and change-of-state le (a sentential particle) are actually the same thing: they may be etymologically distinct, though they are written with the same character 了, which is evidence that they have been thought of as the same thing for a long time.

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