Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More on language and migration: Ancient edition

Our last post was on how ancient migrations still leave traces in modern life — beyond language/dialect, but connected to it. Patterns of even more ancient migration are of course more controversial. This review of Peter Heather's new book from Discovery magazine's blog Gene Expression gives an overview of some of the controversies surrounding the Germanic Migrations.

The author objects to this point:
Many times within the text Peter Heather contends that the centuries long linguistic continuity of particular Germanic tribes … necessarily entails that the barbarians had to have brought women on their migrations.
The key is that Germanic languages clearly continued to be transmitted:
Someone with a better grasp of the details of sociolinguistics can enlighten us on the exact details of how language is transmitted, but I’m rather sure that women are not a necessary precondition for linguistic continuity.
I'll leave more detailed discussion to actual sociolinguists and historical linguists (I hope one of our contributors might actually read the book and report!), but these are interesting questions. Certainly a language can be maintained in some form under those conditions but that is typically a good situation for big restructuring — 'mixed' languages can be created, for instance. A community where the men are mostly speakers of one language and the women mostly speakers of another might be the kind of scenario that would lead to the structural differences that English shows from the rest of Germanic.

My point here is simply that somebody interested in socio-historical linguistics might want to look at Heather's book and see whether it opens the door to a fresh analysis of parts of Germanic history.

(Map from the fantastic University of Texas collection, here. Because I like old maps. Click to enlarge.)


lotsson said...

Before 1066, English was not very different from other Germanic languages. The Scandinavian invaders and the English seem to have understood one another, and Middle Frisian is very similar to Middle English. So when should there have been a time when men in England spoke one language and women another? The Normans brought women along, or didn't they?

Mr. Verb said...

Well, Old English does look a lot more Germanic than the modern language, but there's a whole set of works, including pretty recent stuff, arguing that English has long been very different from its cousins. See this post and others on this blog:

Again, I'll leave it to the historical and sociolinguists to comment in detail, but I think the Norman invasion is today seen as having a more limited impact than it once was.

Thanks for the comment.

lotsson said...

The Normans left a lot of words, but left the basic structure of English unchanged. Some innovations, like the -ing forms of verbs, came later. It is, I agree, an interesting theory that English was spoken in Britain before the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and that might explain the well-known fact that there are hardly any Celtic place names in England - but the theory is still hard to prove, or disprove.

Joe said...

OK, I'll try to read the Heather book and post something about it. It will be a while, though, so stay tuned.

Lotsson raises good questions. I think it's clear that the basic structure of English DOES differ in pretty important ways from the rest of Germanic. John McWhorter's paper in Diachronica, called "What happened to English?" catalogs a pretty bit set of features.

lotsson said...

My initial comment dealt only with the suggestion that language changes because men (conquerors) speak one language and women (locals) speak another. I am not arguing against the suggestion that English has changed a lot, compared to other Germanic languages, but only that the changes in English seem to have taken place in times when the population was quite stable and free from conquerors.

Mr. Verb said...

Right. Just to be really clear, the disagreement is not with Team Verb, but with scholars who have written about this stuff. Don't Thomason & Kaufmann 1988 attribute a lot of big changes in English to the Norse invasions? Those would have been specifically groups of met without many women along.