Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Outside The Box

I would be regarded as a general challenger of received wisdom, well up (or down) the bell curve for such things.  Bible discussion or other adult study often has a Mythbusters flavor: Is that really Christian doctrine, or is that just something American Baptists have been saying for the last 200 years? Is that what Jesus meant?  Are those God’s directions for reading scripture, or is that C I Scofield/Thomas Aquinas/Oswald Chambers talking?

It sounds more elevated and intellectual in theory than it is in practice.  Those of you who know such folks are aware that hurt feelings are as likely an outcome as increased knowledge.  I have taken to saying these last two decades that thinking outside-the-box, which I do quite well, is an overrated skill.  Yet it is also remarkable how seldom even I question what comes down the pike.  There is a received wisdom, and I just parrot it back for years until someone puts up a question mark. From this I conclude that we all mostly just believe stuff, like the Electric Monk;  even the doubters and great skeptics are mostly just reflexive believers in some opposite to the prevailing view.  (And even then, they accept 90%+ of common belief anyway.)

This comes up because of the McWhorter book I got for my birthday, nailing down an idea that had only come up as a challenge a few years ago.  The prevailing idea has long been that the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and a few other related tribes invaded Celtic Britain in waves in the south, while the Vikings came in the north, pushing most of the inhabitants westward, so that roughly, the English people are a Germanic folk and everyone else – Scots, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Manx – largely Celtic.  In even recent eras where small racial differences loomed larger, large swaths of personality and culture were attributed to this supposed racial divide.

As a person who has only reluctantly over a period of decades abandoned the ideology that it is training and environment, not genes that determine character and culture, I rejected the stereotype of the sentimental, pugnacious, drunken, mystical Gael for entirely different reasons.  I believed those things were exaggerations, and any truth in them derived from circumstances, not innate qualities. (Though even at the height of my blank slatism I think I allowed for some minor ethnic differences.)  I never thought to reject the idea because most of England was still Celtic anyway.

The recent DNA evidence is that not much of the ancestry of Great Britain is Germanic.  Even in the Danelaw and areas of especial concentration of Saxon influence, it’s less than 20%.  Given generations of Saxons and Danes getting the best land, food, and wives (before the Normans came in, anyway), one has to conclude it was even less back in Alfred’s day.  And that’s just the men.  For mtDNA, the daughter-to-mother-to-mother line, it’s virtually all Britons. I was intrigued at this lack-of-Jutishness when I read Bryan Sykes’s Saxons, Vikings, and Celts. I filed away the knowledge that the early invasions were much like the Norman one – a ruling class over a large subject population, not an exterminated one.

McWhorter brings this in to make a case that Celtic languages influenced the grammar of English far more than has been previously believed.  He makes the case well, BTW.  There are numerous elements, a few significant, of English grammar that are different from all other Germanic languages.  In fact, those elements are different from almost all the world’s 6000 languages – except for Welsh and Cornish. It has been largely believed by historical linguists that those elements just sorta grew there in the odd, unexplainable way languages have.  That these elements could have come from Celtic speakers having English imposed on them while still greatly outnumbering the conquerors was impossible because – well, because they weren’t there.  They were all killed or pushed over the mountains into Wales or Scotland or wherever.

But once you hold more loosely the idea that the Celts were largely exterminated by the Angles and such, the idea of Welsh influence seems quite reasonable.  Actually, once one holds the extermination idea loosely, it gets ripped from the grasp immediately.  How the hell did we ever believe such an idea?  The invaders mostly came as raiders who stayed, not wedded couples.  So there’s 50% of your Brythonic population right there. They were also less numerous than the original Brits, even taking all the waves together.  Therefore, they didn’t get all the wives.

It’s one of those things that is obvious once you look at it, but just goes on forever until someone kicks the door in.

Note: The lack of Celtic vocabulary other than toponyms (especially hydronyms, which usually hang toughest when a new population comes in) is not a counterargument.  It is vocab, more than any other feature, that conquerors insist on from their subjects, and subjects attempt to imitate anyway.  Odd habits of expression and structure are harder to suppress – especially when you are outnumbered 10-1.


Sam L. said...

Sehr kuhl, mein AVI!

Texan99 said...

Allow me to draw attention to the frame of mind that leads to phrases like "Given generations of Saxons and Danes getting the best land, food, and wives. . . ." What was going on simultaneously in terms of the best husbands that Saxon, Dane, or Teuton women could get?

Texan99 said...

PS, I've just realized that this guy McWhorter is the one whose "Great Courses" lecture I enjoyed so much, and now I'm interested in picking up one of his books. On Amazon the most recent book of his is a couple of years old. Which is the one you've been reading? Would you recommend it over one of his earlier books, if you've read more than one (as I suspect)? I was drawn to an old one about what happens to a language when a lot of people have to learn it as adults, as in the conquest context. McWhorter had many interesting things to say about that in his lecture series. There are isolated languages that are so stuffed with conjugations and tenses and voices and declensions and tones and raw-throat consonants as to reduce any adult learner to tears. They don't survive conquest.

Patrick O'Brian's fine early novel "Testimonies" gives an idea of the verbal habits and style that native Welsh brings to Welsh people who learn English.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I just finished Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, and will start What Language Is, which I also got for my birthday, pretty quickly. I read The Power of Babel a couple of years ago, and also listened to that college course on CD. OMBT talks about adult learners and contact languages a lot. Looking over his titles, I suspect that creoles and contacts are his specialty. He does not reject Venneman and Ruhlen out-of-hand, as traditional linguists do. I will likely review the pair eventually, and perhaps talk about larger linguistic issues. My sons may shoot me before this happens.

As for the Danish women, they got to choose from whoever stayed home. Some women were brought in to colonise, especially in Orkney and the Shetlands, but in GB, not so much. It is tempting to draw cultural conclusions from that in light of current culture, but I'll bet that's an overstretch.

Texan99 said...

If contemporary sensibilities would make us hesitate to mention wives casually in a list of other property like land and food, it's a temptation we should consider succumbing to. :-) The fact that men at the time thought of them that way is no reason for us to.

But I agree that, when an essentially all-male conquering force shows up in a country, the other half of that culture can be studied most reasonably in the context of whatever was going on back in the source country. Still, is it your understanding that the female half of the conquering race never joined the male half, even after the country was somewhat pacified? I'm not disputing that part; I honestly don't know.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That is my understanding, yes, from the y-chromosome and mtDNA evidence and the historical accounts.

I didn't mean to imply a value equivalence between women and goods in the moral realm. But for evolutionary purposes, they have similarities. Of course, one could say the same about the evolutionary value of men, though the computation is a bit more indirect.

Texan99 said...

I know you didn't mean it that way. Pardon my sensitivity on the subject.

The McWhorter books all sound like worthwhile reads. He's an awfully good speaker. The funny thing is that, while he constantly scorns the notion that there can be any "right" way to speak a language, he himself uses elegant, precise, and standard grammatical English, except when he's obviously taking deliberate liberties.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Exactly. Language is a marker for values, background, aspirational class, etc. Rather like clothing.

We have to caution ourselves it doesn't tell us everything. But it tells us something.

james said...

I'll have to check him out. Years ago I'd been told that imperial languages tend to have simpler grammar, with Chinese and English given as examples (and maybe Quechua?). But thinking about it now, French and Spanish were imperial just as long as English, so maybe the key is getting overrun a bunch of times by different language group populations.

And you're absolutely right that it is easy to accept the narrative without thinking it through. Bloodlands pointed out something I should have noticed from looking at the before and after maps of WW-II: Poland used to be _there_ and now it is _here_. I didn't think about the implications of boundary changes, or I'd have realized that drawing a boundary doesn't miraculously turn a German into a Pole: someone moved a lot of Poles and a lot of Germans to make that new map.