Given our culture’s obsession with the finer points of mixology–cosmopolitans as well as chromosomes–it’s not surprising that the discrete combinatory of language would inspire different mixological theories as well. If ideas create a "buzz," then what can we make of this concoction?
*The occasional blue-eyed Berber in the Maghreb is sometimes said to be the descendant of Vandals who invaded the Phoenician colony at what is now Salé in the fifth century, or of Europeans captured by the corsairs (also from Salé!) in the seventeenth century and brought home to be absorbed into the gene pool of the region.
*According to Michael Jackson’s Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, one theory on the origin of distillation in the British Isles suggests that Phoenicians brought the technology all the way from the Mediterranean, where it was invented by those ancient seafarers to desalinize water.
*Famous linguist Geoffrey Nunberg reminds us that the words looting and thug come from Hindi. "It’s striking," he writes in The Years of Talking Dangerously, "how many of the words we use for criminality are borrowed from other languages, as if these were alien notions–marauder from French, desperado from Spanish, bandit from Italian, assassin from Arabic, vandal from the Vandals."
Exhibit 4: According to Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, by linguist and pundit John McWhorter, the motley collection of foreign words in our lexicon–like blue eyes in a brown-eyed population–is neither unusual nor very interesting. "Over half of Japanese words are from Chinese…. Almost half of Urdu’s words are Persian and Arabic. Albanian is about 60 percent Greek, Latin, Romanian, Turkish, Serbian, and Macedonian." Rather, it is the subtle structural differences between English and other Germanic languages, and between English and other Indo-European languages, that make English interesting; that make it, in his words, "miscegenated" and "weird." This in itself is a weird premise for a linguistics book, but McWhorter, a specialist in Creole languages, knows he is taking a gamble. The stakes: a revised "story of English," with emphasis placed not on the accommodating nature of English but on the liberties taken by its marauders, desperados and vandals.
A comparative look at the grammars of English and its nearest kin reveals small but telling differences. (McWhorter offers the helpful mnemonic of Volvos, Vermeers, Volkswagens and Volcanoes for the Scandinavian, Dutch, German and Icelandic languages and their variants that are closest to English.) Why did all the conjugational, gender and case endings disappear over the centuries in English while surviving in those other tongues? Why do we have the present participle and they don’t? (We say, "I’m eating;" they say, like most every other language, "I eat.") Why do we even have the word do? Do hardly ever does any real work grammatically, which is why McWhorter relentlessly calls it "meaningless do." (As he quips, "shitte happens.")
These grammatical changes are more like technological changes, distilling English (it really is an easier language to learn than most, McWhorter insists) and allowing us to reverse-engineer probable historical scenarios. "Meaningless do" and the present participle, it turns out, are remnants of the original Celtic language that wormed its way into vernacular English through native wealhs subjugated by the invading Anglo-Saxons. Very few etymologically Celtic words survive (possibilities include brag, brat, curse and baby), but structurally we speak a smidgen of Welsh and Cornish every day.