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A few months ago, I received John McWhorter’s new book, Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, in the mail and I rapidly and rapaciously read through it, enjoying myself all the while. The best part of the book is not, as you might think, that it has a “dirty” word in the title. Yes, that’s a lot of fun if you’re secretly immature like I am, but what’s better about the book is McWhorter’s proposal about what led to our modern English. (The language, not the band.)

McWhorter’s main observation in the book is that English is very strange: it’s a Germanic language that doesn’t look like any other Germanic language. You probably already knew that, especially if you’ve ever known or looked at German. If you’re up on the basic history of English, you might even offer an explanation for this, noting that the Norman Invasion in 1066 resulted in England being a temporarily bilingual country, with English the language of the commoners, but French the language of the government. As always happens in these situations, the languages influenced each other, and English underwent a few changes. And to illustrate that point, you might offer the example of Latinate words in English, which often exist almost as fancier versions to their Germanic counterparts (for instance, eat and consume). That’s what I always used to do.

But McWhorter offers a somewhat different view of the strangeness of English. Sure, he notes, there are these differences in words, but it’s not just words that take English away from its Germanic roots; it’s syntax as well. For instance, Germanic languages ask questions like Sprechen Sie Deutsch?, which transliterates to Speak you German?, whereas English asks questions like Do you speak German?, with a meaningless do tossed in for good measure. Similarly, Germanic languages have hardy case systems with lots of suffixes. English only has case-marking on pronouns (I vs. me vs. my), and even there it is slowly being lost from the language (as in the protracted death of whom).

McWhorter’s proposal is that Modern English is in some sense a creole, that invasions of England by the Danish and the Norwegians, along with a significant number of remaining Celts, resulted in a substantial proportion of Old English speakers being non-native speakers of Old English. That allowed for the loss of the Old English case system, along with the adoption of certain Celtic syntactic structures (such as the meaningless do in Do you speak German?). Yet written Old English stayed much the same, because written language is very resistant to change (witness the spelling of knight) Then the Normans took over, and that led to a century and a half where French was the written language of England. When English regained its post as the written language of England, there was no longer such a strong adherence to its old ways, and so the new written language was more like the new (spoken) Middle English, the semi-creolized and weakly simplified version of Old English. So the change the Normans wrought was far more substantial than adding a few ten-dollar words to the lexicon; it also led to the debut of a syntactically different version of English.

Not knowing much about historical linguistics myself, I’m not qualified to fully assess McWhorter’s arguments, but I didn’t see any glaring holes. However, I’m a bit concerned that he’s given short shrift to the competing theories about the history of English. The counter-proposals, which McWhorter insists are held by most historical linguists, seem like strawmen. For instance, McWhorter proposes that meaningless do spread into English by contact with Welsh, which is one of only a handful of languages in the world with meaningless do, and he claims that the opposing theory is that meaningless do just appeared in English purely coincidentally. Well, given those two options, I’d obviously take the former, as I would assume most everyone would. Yet McWhorter insists that almost all historical linguists studying English hold the opposing viewpoint, so they almost certainly have a better reason to do so than what he’s telling us. But again, historical linguistics is not an area of any expertise for me, so maybe the opposing argument is as flimsy as he portrays it.

The second half of the book is an interesting corollary to McWhorter’s “English is a bastard” proposal; since the English we revere today is the result of having essentially incompetent speakers mangle it thoroughly a millennium ago, why would we protect it now? It’s a strange twist when suddenly the book starts talking about grammar rules after discussing the details of language change, and it’s not entirely fluid. But he makes a good point, and I think it’s an argument worth having in battles against prescriptivists; language is much more resilient than it is given credit for.

So, on the whole, a pretty good book, if occasionally a bit too insistent for my taste. It’s worth a read, especially if you’re into this kind of stuff.

I spent the day today walking around the suburbs of Pittsburgh, soaking up the cold and the snow as best I could, storing it away mentally to be recalled throughout the long bright winter in San Diego. And with the all the lights, signs, and half-inflated Santas, well, in the air there’s a feeling of Christmas.

Or might one say Xmas?

One might of course, but in so doing one runs the risk of offending a few people. For instance, these folks, who view the use of Xmas as a way for the secular to omit Christ from Christmas. This is a widely held belief, and one that people often feel strongly about; a search for “Christmas not Xmas” on Facebook netted 200 groups and 34 pages pushing for use of the word Christmas instead of Xmas. It’s even led to poetry:

We surely would not write “X-ian”
For the Christians here on earth,
Then why do many write “X-mas”
For the day of the Savior’s birth?

But, as so often happens, the poem is mistaken. There is nothing devious or censorious about Xmas, or even Xian for that matter; X is an old abbreviation for Christ. And when I say old, I mean old: 900 years old in English, and 1700 in Latin/Greek.

In fact, it all goes back to the Roman Emperor Constantine I, best known for his giant marble head, his founding of Constantinople, and his much-publicized acceptance of Christianity on the eve of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 AD. After the battle, Constantine adopted the labarum — ☧, a juxtaposition of the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P) as a symbol for Christ — as his monogram. Although the symbol ☧ itself and the abbreviation XP pre-dated Constantine, it was his use of them that really launched them to prominence.

So why use “Chi-Rho” anyway? Well, it’s an abbreviation for “Christ”, which in Greek is “Χριστός”. Note those first two letters, chi and rho. That means people have been abbreviating Christ with an X (or an XP) for 1700 years. In fact, these sorts of abbreviations and word games were something of a calling card of the early Christian church. The “Jesus fish” so prevalent on on the back-ends of cars has “ΙΧΘΥΣ” inside of it, an acrostic for the ancient Greek “ησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ ͑Υιός, Σωτήρ”, which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, savior”. Before it became a foot soldier in the bumper sticker wars, this acrostic was used as a marker in the early Christian underground. Other common abbreviations — also known as Christograms — include the INRI (from the Latin for “Jesus Nazarene, King of the Jews”) on crucifixes, the IHS (from the first three letters in “Jesus” in Greek) on tombstones, or the contracted nomina sacra in early Greek scriptures. These abbreviations are throwbacks to the exciting early years of Christianity, not some modern plot to snuff out Jesus.

That’s all well and good, but what about the X in English? Was it just a Roman-era Christian symbol that’s only now being resurrected by heathens to cover up the Christ in Christmas? Nope. In the Old English Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, written sometime before 1123, we see the chi-rho abbreviation in Christ’s mass, the progenitor of the word Christmas:

Her on {th}isum {asg}eare to X{ptilde}es. mæssan heold se cyng Heanri{asg} his hired on Westmynstre.

The OED lists further examples of such X abbreviations from then until now — not just in Xmas, but also in Xtian (for Christian). Aldous Huxley used it in 1915 (The ethics are identical with Xtian ethics), Ezra Pound in 1940 (They drove the Xtians out of Japan), and D. Jones in 1960 (what the present notion of Xtianity boils down to). So the poet I quoted above is completely mistaken; we surely might write X-tian for the Christians here on Earth. It’s not a common abbreviation anymore, but Xmas still is. Here’s even a neat example from Wikipedia, with Xmas used in a postcard in the good ol’ days around 1910:

So fear not, traditionalists! You can use Xmas without fear of offending God! The only concern with Xmas is that as an abbreviation, it’s a bit informal. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it on your letterhead, but if someone suggests you’re impious for using Xmas, let ’em know how traditional you are. 1700 years traditional, baby!

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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