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Selected Books by Edmund Blair Bolles

  • Galileo's Commandment: 2500 Years of Great Science Writing
  • The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age
  • Einstein Defiant: Genius vs Genius in the Quantum Revolution

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I may be out to lunch here but... I was taught at some point in my life that the Danish Vikings as opposed to the Norwegian came from the same area as the Angles but some hundreds of years later. They settled around the Humber and in East Anglia where the Angles had settled previously. Therefore the roots of words in the local English and the Danish Viking were the same. Instead of learning one another's grammar they both came to use the root words unadorned. If this is true, it would be an example of deducing two languages with elaborate grammars to a single language with a simplified grammar. I have a little distrust of such neat little explanations but the general idea seems feasible. It doesn't account of the half of England that escaped the Danelaw or the place where the Norwegian Vikings settled or the places that were settled by the Saxons or the Jutes or Friesians. etc. etc. They are all similar Germanic languages and the process of creating a single language would have been long and complex but a root word pidgin may have been the starting point many times and places.
BLOGGERS: I too wondered why the practice spread beyond the Danelaw area. McWhorter notes that it was slower to spread beyond but does not really give us a process for the spreading. I have the impression that the Scandanavians in general spoke mutually intelligible languages,


Sorry - typo - deduced should be reduced.


Tech-nit-ally, I write and I am writing are both present tense, but differ in Aspect, being Perfective and Imperfective respectively. That is doubtless what McWhorter means by by “not really present tense”. Habitual actions take the imperfective form in English.

Obviously other languages don't say the English sentence “He feels better”, but I read page xxi as saying German uses the perfective form where English uses the imperfective (aka progressive) form. (*these terms are not standardized)

Incidentally, “He be wanting...” in African American Vernacular English is correct form for imperfective aspect.
BLOGGER: What's the story on "He is wanting a ride." Is there something in Hindi/Urdu that supports the practice?


Re Hindi, Yeah. English has a rule that you shouldn't use the progressive form with stative verbs. Most North Indian languages don't have such a rule, and speakers of Indian English have just ignored the restriction. That lets them use “I am wanting ...” where Englishmen have to use “I want...”.

The AAVE case is different. A common process in Creole formation is: grab a common lexical item, grammaticalize it into an auxiliary verb, and use it to express a distinction in the Tense-Aspect system that wasn't made previously. That's how 'invariant be' got into AAVE, to express habitual aspect: they can say “He be wanting ...” where Standard American has to say “He always wants ...”; and both still say “He wants” for the non-habitual meaning.

David Fried

An interesting thesis, but not new. I remember it being advanced in the PBS series "The Story of English" with Jim Lehrer quite a few years ago. For whatever it's worth, I think the loss of case endings is so unremarkable in European languages that this explanation is superfluous. I also think this is just a special case of "creolization," which is, after all, McWhorter's speciality.

One has to take into account that the Viking settlement was almost immediately followed by the Norman Conquest, which quickly ended the use of the English vernacular for official and literary purposes. I'm no expert, but I understand that the formal literary Anglo-Saxon still in use at the Conquest was already a learned tongue, 2 or more centuries behind the vernacular. It thus preserved many forms no longer in use.

The new standard that began to take shape 200-300 years later was based on different dialects than Anglo-Saxon and came straight from the vernacular speech of the time. So, in effect, 4 centuries or more passed between the formation of the two standards. That case should have been lost in the interim is not surprising and requires no special explanation.
BLOGGER: Most of this post is a good summary of the McWhorter thesis, but (using McWhorter's dates), the Normal conquest was about 200 years after the Viking period's end. You can decide whether that is a short or long time.

David Fried

I am unfamiliar with the Normal Conquest, but it sounds like a bad idea.
BLOGGER: I think I'll leave that one uncorrected. Quod scripsi scripsit.


I think David is right in his time line, and in the hidden development of separate local English dialects for a couple of hundred years after the Norman conquest. I am interested in why David says that losing case endings is a normal thing in European languages. Are there other European languages that have lost case and gender endings almost entirely or even substantually? If so were they creolized too at the time of the loss?

David Fried


Thanks for the support. After all, William the Conqueror came along less than a generation after all England was ruled by the Danish King Knut--the "Canute" who ordered the tide to recede!

As for the loss of case--the only Romance language to retain a simplied case system is Romanian, and that seems to be less a survival than the influence of other Balkan languages. The Latin case system quickly disappeared from Italian, Spanish, French and Catalan. The loss of case in those languages is plainly an internal development, resulting from the disappearance of final "m", the sign of the accusative, a process that had already begun in preClassical times; the loss of vowel length, etc.

Classical Arabic had a case system, too. But its loss may be probably attributable to the "creolization" of Arabic when it became the language of tens of millions of people as the Muslims conquered much of the known world. Lots of those people spoke Aramaic and Syriac (pretty much the same thing), Semitic languages related to Arabic that had lost their case endings more than 1,000 years before.
BLOGGER: Isn't "creolization" being used here in the sense I've been using for vikingized? There are two processes: (1) building up from a pidgin to a creole language; we can call that creolization; (2) tearing down, from a complex language like classical Arabic to a simpler one that is easier to learn; we can call that vikingization.

And once you start thinking of vikingization, it's hard to stop. Latin looks like a good candidate since its empire was famously invaded by a very large number of barbarous tribes. The Normans from France had been Vikings a bit earlier, so I wonder if they spoke a vikingized French. And what's the story with Norman Italian? Was it vikingized as well?

David Fried

Right--I agree that the process of rapid simplification and change that hit Classical Arabic was "vikingization" as you're using it. But the point is that Arabic and Aramaic largely coincided in their triliteral roots and general structure--the morphological complexity of Classical Arabic was partly lost in the shuffle. But when the Vikings gave up Norse for Norman French, nothing happened to French, as far as I know. Nor would you expect "vikingization"; French and Norse are just too different. And the "barbarian invasions," if they can even be said to have occurred (see a terrific recent book called "The Ruin of the Roman Empire") had remarkably little effect on the language of the Roman West except in England, where Latin was killed off. Again, the barbarians simply gave up their languages for proto-Romance, just bringing in a handful of lexical items like "guerra," (obviously cognate to "war.") The common features of the Romance languages must have been present in the Vulgar Latin of the late Empire.


Maybe it goes like this. If the two languages are different then a pidgin is formed; if the two languages are similar then a vikingized language is formed. In effect the speakers are going to retain as much as they can of their former languages in some sort of spectrum between drastic pidgin-ing and mild viking-ing. I suspect that we would also have to take into account the power inequalities between the two peoples.


The reason McWhorter didn't push "Vikingisation" as his discovery is that it's neither his idea nor a particularly new idea. A good discussion of it with specific reference to English can be found in one of the later chapters of Thomason & Kaufman 1988: Language contact, creolization, and genetic linguistics. The term "creolisation" is quite commonly used to mean what you call Vikingisation; this is arguably a more approriate meaning for it than Bickerton's, since there is no direct evidence that most creoles ever went through a stage of being pidgins.
BLOGGER: I used 'Vikingization' to distinguish it from Bickerton's 'creolization.'

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