« Mr. Pietila's neighborhood | Main | Oh, the fracking you'll see »

English is a mess, and so is everything else

Writing is a skill developed only with effort and long application. Speech is something that any first-grader can do. So it is not surprising that those who have achieved some mastery of writing should be vain of the accomplishment, even to the point of exaggerating its importance.

Thus we begin to explain something about the clamoring tribe of peevers. What is implicit in their cant about the purity and precision of language is a set of assumptions: that writing is of primary importance and speech secondary, that written language should be the template for spoken language, and that their particular dialect—in this country, standard written American English; in Britain, standard written British English—calls the tune for everything and everyone else.

What we can discover by reading John McWhorter’s What Language Is (Gotham Books, 228 pages, $26) is that those assumptions crumble upon examination by linguists who have done the research about the ways that language actually operates.* Professor McWhorter, who teaches at Columbia, sets forth, in an entertaining mixture of the formal and the demotic, some home truths about language. The basic one: Languages are a mess.

Languages are ingrown, he says. Left to themselves, “they grow hungrily, ceaselessly, and rampantly into available space,” like kudzu. They are disheveled. Over time they grow messy, develop peculiarities, become “jerry-rigged [probably he intended jury-rigged. Sorry] splotches doing the best they can despite countless millennia of unguided, slow-but-sure kaleidoscopic distortion.” They are intricate, developing ever greater complexities unless something interrupts the tendency. They are mixed. All languages bear the traces of encounters with other languages, and no language is “pure.”

Take English. The orthography may be a nightmare, but the language as a whole is much simpler than most—Professor McWhorter mentions one obscure language that has ten genders. English has been simplified for the same reason that Persian and other trans-national languages grew simpler: “blunted adult language-learning abilities.” The invading Vikings had trouble learning Anglo-Saxon, and so they made mistakes in speaking it and corrupted and simplified it, as did the later Norman French. (Today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s grammar.) So we have spelling that is insane, but the other side of the bargain is that we lack a thicket of case endings and verb conjugations.

This then is observed fact, with citations by Professor McWhorter from multiple languages to back it up: The more isolated a language, the smaller its population of speakers, the more ingrown, disheveled, and intricate it will be, learned by small children but nearly impenetrable to adults. The international languages have been simplified, worn smoother, by their friction with speakers of other languages who radically simplify them.

I should mention that Professor McWhorter is also great fun to read. Of the Vikings: “Making do with their crummy Old English, they plugged in so many of their Old Norse words into it that we can barely get through a sentence without them: get, they, wrong, take, anger, bag, low, club, knife (funny what kind of people that list makes the Vikings look like, but from reports it doesn’t seem far off).”

So, to get back to Those People, the ones who fret and fume about the purity of English and its supposed decline into barbarism. English comes from barbarism, and demotic speech continually replenishes and enriches it, as do its sluttish brushes against other languages. All of this is normal, and documented.

Those of us who concern ourselves with standard written English can certainly discuss nuance and precision, and there are indeed rules to observe and standards to uphold, though the latter, which might better be called conventions, are flexible and variable.

But if we were so ill-advised as to take seriously the Queen’s English Society or the other targets familiar from posts at this site, we would run the risk of winding up with what professor McWhorter describes in another context as a “taxidermal artifice.”


*We are fortunate to have access to multiple books that explain, in terms accessible to the laity, essentials about linguistics. You may have read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and, more recently, Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak. Professor McWhorter’s book is an extremely valuable addition to the literature.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:34 AM | | Comments (23)


The prescriptivist(QES, et al) argument is pure, constipated bunkum. Of course we have to follow rules; without context chaos rules(pun intended). But language is a function of humanity, and humans are messy. The only question that counts is: "Do you understand me?" If the answer is a resounding "Yes!," then the language works.

Certainly. But the respectable other side of the issue is that if you want to be elegant as well as understandable, some degree of prescriptivism must come into play.

To put it another way, if you're going to celebrate natural selection, you can't also curse the predator's role.

The prescriptivist(QES, et al) argument is pure, constipated bunkum. Of course we have to follow rules; without context chaos rules(pun intended). But language is a function of humanity, and humans are messy. The only question that counts is: "Do you understand me?" If the answer is a resounding "Yes!," then the language works.

Especially when your goal is to be understood by the widest audience with the least risk of misinterpretation.

But, that won't stop you from writing your novel however you like.

Well, it's true that "jerry-rigged" probably started as a mixture of "jerry-built" (1869, "built to sell but not to last", origin unknown) and "jury-rigged" (1788, "rigged with a jury-mast [origin unknown]"). But the combo has been around since 1959 (per and I think it's pretty much been accepted: Google lists "jerry-rigged" and "jury-rigged" each with about five million hits.

A few weeks back I stumbled on a lively dialogue between Prof. McWhorter and, as I recall, NPR veteran radio journalist Scott Simon, discussing the professor's newly released tome, "What Language Is". My interest in his book was definitely piqued, but I've yet to read it.

( I got a little chuckle out of McWhorter's observation in the aforementioned interview, that he only seems to turns up in the media spotlight when the issue of Ebonics comes to-the-fore, and he's called upon as the go-to African-American language scholar to hopefully shed new light on the rekindled, hot-button debate. This was clearly said w/ tongue firmly planted in cheek, although there may be a kernel of truth in his jocular hyperbole.)

Just last evening I finished reading prolific author, Bill Bryson's "Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way", in print going on for the past twenty-some years, but nonetheless, a terrific informative, comprehensive, and at times cheekily humorous read, packed w/ super lexicographic info, and historical accounts of the circuitous, often bumpy evolution of the English language. How, indeed, as Prof. McWhorter implies, our 'mother tongue' is ever muting and morphing, becoming almost the de facto lingua franca of our ever-shrinking, increasingly interconnected 'global village'. (That last bit was more Bryson's assertion, but rephrased by moi.)

Admittedly, perhaps slightly dated, Bryson's very entertaining and informative 'Mother Tongue' would perhaps, IMHO, be a fine warmup read before fully weighing in on McWhorter's most important new tome.

Bryson's take on the vital contributions of both Samuel Johnson, and Noah Webster to the early English dictionary canon, alone, is worth giving this one a good read. His speculative geographic tie-in of the early grunting, barely verbal Neanderthals, and the ancient Basque culture, w/ their most unique, idiosyncratic tongue, unlike any other on the globe, was a curious observation----- just one of many intriguing Bryson factoid gems.


Bryson can get a tad ribald in his humor (a latter-day Chaucer, if you will), w/ subject matter toward the end of 'Mother Tongue' getting a tad bawdily graphic.
He is clearly a very 'cunning linguist', to be sure. (Groan)

On that naughty note, I bid y'all adieu.


and whose "rule" dictates that the first letter of a complete sentence after a colon must be capped?

To communicate requires an understanding of who you are communicating with. This in turn requires a certain skill and experience. It does not require pontification from the likes of the QES. The loudest-shouting peevers are invariably those who understand least about what language is.

Oh, and Mrs Ingram learnt Old Norse specifically so she could read the sagas. Viking literature, she informs me, is indeed rich in words for weapons and ways of using them, and rather short on terms that might be used to discuss moral philosophy or the making of quince jam. It seems that it's just the way they were.


To bolster, or perhaps echo Mrs. Ingram's earlier point, you clearly don't go traipsing all over most of the then known Northern Hemisphere as far afield as today's Russia, sacking, raping and pillaging whilst bearing jam jars, and tomes on "moral philosophy". More like slashing broadswords, daggers, and war axes---the better for hand-to-hand, sweaty, most bloody combat. Hence the plethora of words relating to weaponry, battle, and such, having been passed down through the ages.

The Vikings were unarguably a most hardy, warlike, adventurous lot, who wreaked major havoc and bodily harm whenever engaging their foreign adversaries, and would, I venture to say, rarely, if ever, express true remorse for their plundering, profligate ways. To the Viking victors went the spoils!

To think that Dublin, Ireland, back in the 9th century AD was a once bustling Viking settlement, until those pesky invading Normans took over in mid-12th century. Those Frenchmen are such a pain. HA!

The town of what today is York, England, as well as Novgorod, and Kiev in present day Russia and Ukraine, respectively, were settled by Norsemen in early mediaeval times, w/ remnants of their wooden built structures, and rudimentary roads being unearthed even to this very day.

It's really no small wonder that those venturesome early Danish and Norwegian roving Vikings left linguistic 'vestiges' where ever they chose to establish permanent settlement far beyond their familiar North Sea/ Baltic shores.



With the amount of (micturition) and moaning about "peevers" around here lately, I am starting to wonder which side ought to be called that.

Full marks for micturition.

Just a warning: Mother Tongue is riddled with factual errors, almost one per page. It's a good read, perhaps, but don't take what it says seriously. I actually threw out my copy rather than giving it away: I didn't to pollute the noosphere with yet more nonsense.

John Cowan,

Hmm........ I can only assume from your earlier "Just a warning:"prefaced post, that my admitted ignorance of the many established 'facts' of our 'mother tongue' (English), in all its sheer complexity, and seemingly infinite descriptive richness, clearly put me at a distinct disadvantage in recognizing the pure drivel, or as you so bluntly put it, "nonsense" with which Bill Bryson's 'Mother Tongue' is "riddled" on almost every page, as you claim?

Clearly, you are much more well versed on this subject matter than either author Bryson, or this totally deceived, naive reader of his book, yours truly.

Frankly, I'm surprised you didn't just burn your copy of this tainted tome, polluting the biosphere, rather than your precious noosphere. (I'm sure Tiehard de Chardin and Vlad Vernadsky would be so proud.)

Clearly, you took your peever pill before heading off to beddy-byes last night.

Thanks for your shining non-endorsement.

I think I'll hang on to my hardcopy copy of Bryson's 'Mother Tongue', despite all the alleged "factual errors", and glaring inaccuracies. Just call me an ignorant thought polluter, who enjoys an occasional good read.


P.S.: ------I intend no disrespect here, John. I'm just slightly baffled by your blanket dissing of what I felt was a sincere, fairly informative, well-meaning, and witty effort by Bryson, which IMHO, didn't deserve such a condemning, negative critique. As if somehow by reading 'Mother Tongue', the reader would be irreparably corrupting his , or her mind, further dumbing down the collective body of all elevated human thought-------that mystifying noosphere to which you earlier alluded.

Though Bill Bryson is an entertaining writer, it is regrettably true that Mother Tongue has a great many attested errors. One specimen is this howler that Language Log commented on a few years back:

Prof. McI.,

I kinda suspected you and that Cowan fellah were in cahoots! HA!

But seriously, now I'm leaning toward believing you two erudite gents' critique that Bryson, w/ willful intent, by being misinformed, or merely unwittingly often played fast-and-loose w/ the real facts in his 'Mother Tongue'. I still contend, a fun read, nonetheless.

John, interestingly, in reading your attachment from Language Log re/ Bryson's misguided claim that there was only one known swear word to be found in the Finnish tongue ( very amusing by the way), I came to the realization that this book is titled, "THE" Mother Tongue, when all along I wasn't factoring in the "THE" in the title.

On my William & Morrow, Inc.-published hardcover copy's dust jacket cover the "THE" in the title is barely discernible, in a roughly 36-point, very, very thin serif type in caps, w/ the "T" and "H", and "H" and "E" in "THE" each separated by two inches of blank white space. The three letters are barely visible, hyper-stretched above "MOTHER TONGUE" which is laid out in giant caps; then immediately below flows the subtitle in slightly smaller caps, and lowercase serif type, followed by author BILL BRYSON---all caps.

I guess it wasn't just Bryson's frequent "factual errors" I happen to have overlooked. HA!


I concede that Bryson is entertaining, but the message he entertainingly delivers is balderdash. What the book is all about is the superiority of English to all other languages, which is of course not the case. English has its virtues, but so does every other language.

There is a good takedown of specific errors at .

My high school English teacher once explained peevery this way (and I'm paraphrasing here, she was much more eloquent): "It would be like going up to an artist while he's working and telling him that he's using his brush all wrong."

John Cowan,

Respectfully, for Buddha's sake, and our readers' sake, could you please give it a rest.

I've earlier conceded to you're contention (supported by the good Prof. McI.), that Bryson's 'Mother Tongue' is rife w/ factual errors, but whether they rise, or sink to the level of "balderdash" in my view is open to debate. (Love the board-game, "Balderdash", by the way, but I digress.)

Frankly, I didn't get the overriding impression that Bryson's mission in writing this book was to flaunt, or exalt, as you put it, "the superiority of English".

Hopefully we can respectfully agree to disagree on this point, and finally put the Bryson 'bashing' to rest.

Bill Bryson has made his mark as an anecdotal, observational, slice-of-real-life style scribe who generally brings humor, and a certain warm and fussy, very personal feel to his homespun narratives. He would likely be the first to admit he is neither much of a linguist, or lexicographer. But IMHO, he at least should get some marks for giving it a go, even if his offering is allegedly filled w/ inaccuracies, and misinformation. Just this guy's opinion.

Case (hopefully) closed.


As proprietor here, I think it's my place to say when a discussion has gone on long enough.

Prof. Mci.,

Fair enough!


I accept, and respect you 'propriety'. You rightly are, and should be the arbiter of your own blog.

Yet, I can see that 'collegial' blood is far thicker than water, and there are certain things on this blog 'you-just-don't-say', or knuckles could possibly be rapped.

So I'll just shut my 'pie-hole', and if there is anything more to be said re/ 'Mother Tongue' and Bryson's ineptitude therein, on this site, then so be it.

Respectfully, I have nothing more to add to THIS particular discussion.


I think the problem here is that you're examining writing and written word from a linguistic perspective. Of course if you ask someone who studies languages and the use thereof, of course they are going to say it's of more importance. Just like if you ask someone who studies literature and written word, most of the time they will likely argue that it is their preferred media that is the better. It's all a matter of perspective and I think both are equally important in their own right.

I find must of the chatter about languages (some of which we see above in the comments) would be silenced if we bothered to keep the purpose of and constraints on language in mind. I find the prescriptivist/descriptivist distinction to be entirely artificial and boneheaded. After all, descriptivism concerns the description of language (its nature, structure, evolution, etc) while prescriptivism concerns a set of processes which attempt to change something about a language for the (percieved) better with respect to some end (in other words, there is a moral imperative at work). A linguist is in the business of describing language, including the prescriptivist processes which cause it to evolve, but he can, in some other capacity, make claims of a prescriptivist character, e.g., that such and such a construction is objectively better for such and such an end. To say description and prescription are in conflict is like saying biology and healthy living are in conflict. The truth is that they pertain to different domains of activity. The only concievable way a particular person may see them as conficting is if such a person is a passive, "linguistic consumer", a moral position nonetheless which blindly and uncritically accepts the tacit prescriptions of others. However, linguistic consumerism can't apply universally because those who change the language which consumers consume are indeed in the business prescribing or reinforcing prescriptions. Any described usage is, after all, something someone somewhere thought was the better way of expressing a thought. Its acceptance spread through authority or agreement. Prescriptivists who gobble up the prescription of others are indeed no different than these consumerists, except in their sources of prescriptions.

At the risk of oversimplifying (it can't be helped; this is merely a post in a combox), language can be objectively evaluated. There is no debate there. There is no linguistic debate per se. It is a moral debate. We can objectively characterize a language as one which is better according to certain objective criteria and ends in within certain domains and registers and in particular ways. We can say that the structure of English is relatively poor in comparison to Latin, hence the use of idioms to make up for some deficiencies. It is erroneous to oversimplify the hierarchies into which language can be classified, but it is equally erroneous to deny the existence of any and all hierarchies. To do so is logically equivalent to claiming that all languages are equally expressive in every way and with equal validity (clearly, this is false; cultural, environmental and historical causes greatly shape the way in which language changes, and all who have managed to preserve their minds in this age of radical pluralism know that cultures vary significantly). After all, a language is better the better it is able to communicate thought accurately and precisely and the better it is at permitting the communication of proper thought accurately and precisely as needed by the context. The quality of the demotic is always in relation to how well it approximates the rightful norm. Language is fluid and must adapt, like culture, in order to serve persons and society (and here purists can take a hike), but the opposite, the denial that languages can degenerate, can become impoverished, confused, mangled and abused is equally dangerous (thus relativists can take a similar hike, up the opposite side of the same volcano).

Let's use some common sense, folks.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected