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Lingo: Fopcorn | The Nation

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Lingo: Fopcorn

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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?

About the Author

Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko
Ange Mlinko is poetry editor of The Nation. The recipient of the Randall Jarrell Award in Poetry Criticism from the...

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Drawing a line between poetry and the political has never been simple.

Saving the venerable NYPL… cooperation, not capitalism… a jewel in the dross… you could look it up…

*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.

What about the vanished conjugational and case and gender suffixes? Where did they go? McWhorter's theory is that they vanished after the Viking invasions starting in 787 AD. A number of other things, like gendered nouns, the be-perfect and reflexivity were also dropped from the language at the same time. A small tic in the dative plural of a northern dialect spoken by Danelaws (Vikings) convinces McWhorter that the mangled English spoken by these newcomers became, in time, standard English.

But even before English distinguished itself from its nearest kin, it was, in Proto-Germanic form, equipped with certain kinks that set it apart from the rest of the Proto-Indo-European languages that surrounded it. For instance: it had only four case endings instead of a sumptuous eight. Uniquely, it conjugated some of its verbs with a single vowel change, like drink/drank/drunk. But most obvious of all were the phonetic substitutions: p's, t's and k's were turned into f's, th's and h's, which McWhorter characterizes as "hissy" sounds displacing "stops." It's why we say father instead of pater, three instead of tres or trois. "Imagine a generation starting to say 'fopcorn' instead of popcorn--weird." Well, as it happens, hissy sounds and single-vowel-change conjugations are prominent features of Semitic languages. And as with the Vikings, the case endings could have vanished as a result of invaders learning the language awkwardly and eventually simplifying it.

Finally, a sizable number of seafaring words in Proto-Germanic--sea, ship, strand, sail, carp, eel--are not to be found in other Proto-Indo-European languages. McWhorter concludes, following the linguist Theo Vennemann, that the Semitic Phoenicians reshaped Proto-German. We have no proof that they sailed as far north as the Danish/German isthmus. But they were secretive about ship routes, and there is the little matter of a Phoenician cooking pot dredged up from the North Sea off Schleswig-Holstein province, and an Old German magic spell that references a mysterious deity with phonetic resemblance to Baal 'Addir ("God great") of the Phoenicians.

McWhorter makes no mention of the beer connection, though if Phoenicians brought the first stills to the British Isles, one imagines that those beermaking Mesopotamians brought some delicious recipes to the Proto-Germans. If you're going to miscegenate a language, it's probably better to get it drunk first.

There's something quixotic about McWhorter's narrative. It was conceived as a revisionist parry against the popular orthodox histories like McCrum, Cran and MacNeil's The Story of English, which dismisses out of hand any Celtic undertones to the language, and possibly Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, which glosses over the language differences that McWhorter wants to ascribe to Phoenicians. This quixotism is that of the language nerd who wants to, as he puts it, play Clue while everyone else wants to play Monopoly.

But McWhorter's ulterior motive is more serious. While we pay lip service to the reality that language is changed and shaped over time by its speakers on the ground--including immigrants--language nerds tend also to be fastidious about its use, thinking that it can achieve a pitch of "perfection" by following "the rules." (Since McWhorter persists impishly with the miscegenation metaphor, we might hear in "the rules" an echo of the dating manual whose ultimate aim is assortative mating and offspring remarkable for being unremarkable--Strunk and White babies, we might say.) Some language nerds even take a pride in English that conflates language, literature and country into one magical monolith, making all of us symbolic subjects of a bygone Empire.

So when McWhorter recasts the history of English as the secret history of adult learners of a second language--namely Celts, Vikings and possibly even ancient Phoenicians--it's a blow to that magical monolith. Strunk and White babies are the descendants of thugs.

Full disclosure: I am a child of adult learners of a second language, and, I am told by those in the know, I spoke Portuguese before English. Not that I have an ethnic connection to Portuguese--it was the only mutually intelligible language between my mother's Russian family, who had been displaced persons sent to Brazil after World War II, and my father's Hungarian family, who had fled to Brazil after the Communist takeover. Four languages were spoken regularly around me for as long as my grandparents were alive, with ancillary relatives bringing Polish, Ukranian and even German to the Christmas dinner table. McWhorter would no doubt delight at the clash of Proto-Indo-European and quasi-Phoenician Proto-German pronunciation (fopcorn!) surviving in a joke from my early childhood: my dad had a buddy who poked fun at his accent and his signature with the greeting, "Ah, if it isn't my friend, Zsigmund Mlinko the Turd." I could never quite relate to struggles for a hyphenated identity--I had too many hyphens. But like the countless mongrels whose historical sound patterns I ventriloquize, I knew the language would always have me. No matter how weird you are, English really is weirder.

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