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"What Language Is": How Bad is Our English?

Earlier this week we featured an excerpt from the linguist John McWhorter's new book, What Language Is, in which he explains how the English language is essentially "disheveled." Here, in a second excerpt, McWhorter considers some questions that the chaotic history of English raises.

Modern English, in this light, is truly awful Old English. Absolutely execrable Old English — sad, really. Yet obviously we don't think of it that way, and shouldn't. The question is where to draw the line, which occasions, as always, questions. Such as:

Does it make any sense whatsoever to treat the difference between lie and lay as "correct" rather than just allowing the language to go where it's trying to, in which lie and lay are synonyms (Lie it right here, Just lay there for a while)? There was a time when this kind of alternation was a regular piece of grammar in the language, applying to heaps of verbs, that no one could miss. Today it's just a toy on the floor in the dark for somebody to trip on. When you give your baby a bottle, you do not refer to yourself as drenching her. If it was okay for none other than Lord Byron to write "There let him lay" in 1812 (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage) then why is it an "error" when you use lay in the same way? And keeping lie and lay separate does not aid clarity: never have I heard someone say I'm going to just lay here for a bit and wondered desperately "But what is he going to lay? What???" And I most certainly have never wondered "Who is he going to..." Plus, let us pass silently by the notion that I would think to myself "Whom? Whom is he... ," and the absurdity of that speaks to the general silliness in resisting the language's moving on as all languages always have — in order to become what they are now as opposed to what they were in antique stages we would never seek to restore. No one in Milan walks around annoyed that people aren't speaking Latin.

Also to consider: if we are to maintain lay as distinct from lie, then for consistency's sake we have to use set in the same way: The glass sits on the table, I set the glass on the table. But notice that this usage of set has a vaguely rustic or quaint feel for many today. You're helping move a sofa and someone says "No, set it there" — doesn't "put it there" sound more natural and even a little more, as the Brits say, posh?

Lie and lay clearly "want" to just be words that mean the same thing. Call that unsystematic, but all languages have synonyms. Language is sloppy.

If we're not going back to icknames and otches, then what logic is there in hearing a whole nother as illegitimate? N isn't the only sound that has jumped the gap between words here and there in English — such things are a natural process, as with s here and there. We probably say whale instead of squale because of an original s that got sucked onto a preceding word. Latin had the original form, as squalus, descended from the Proto-Indo-European word skwal-o-. At some point, something like his squale became his whale like a napron became an apron.

When we want to say another but reinforce it with whole, we think of an other — obviously what another "is" — and spontaneously place the whole after a- rather than an- because it's how English works. Whole starts with a consonant, the h sound, and consonants come after a rather than an. But that leaves -nother on the other end:


which we could just embrace as one more word born from the nifty notch/nickname process.

But no — "wrong," "nonstandard." But only because words like notch emerged when writing and literacy weren't common yet, such that people didn't have a sense that the way the language happened to be caught in the headlights when written down was the way it should, or could, be until the sun burns the planet to a crisp.

The tragedy of the lowdown status of a whole nother is that there is no legitimate version — one is supposed to just avoid the entire construction despite how naturally it comes to mind. "An whole other" would break the fundamental rule of how a and an are used, and thus feels like cracking an axle in a pothole (yes, I do believe that there are rules — the question is whether we should embrace "rules" whose observance in the days of old would have blocked the emergence of the English we speak today). A whole another is dopey, too, because it means having two a's. One is expected to apply a patch and avoid a whole nother like a curse word — but does that really make sense when to some folks several centuries ago, notch and nickname "weren't words" either? [...]

Languages are messy — it's part of being the end product of sound changes, drifting meanings, and words coming together to make new ones. What's new in a language is neither a mistake nor subject, in a logical sense, to condemnation as unlikeable. It is inherent to languages to be always gradually becoming other ones — and that, ladies and gentlemen, is never an orderly process.

Excerpted from What Language Is by John McWhorter. Copyright © 2011 by John McWhorter. Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday August 18th 2011, 3:25 AM
Comment by: Alfred W. (Wolverhampton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I understand that the word, 'Bishop/s' were not a literal translation from the greek words, 'Episcopos or episcopoi' but is a result of gradual transmutation and evolution of these greek words. I would be grateful if you are able to show me how these words, singular and plurals gradually evolved into the words 'Bishop/s'
Thursday August 18th 2011, 1:34 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
I know Greece's status in the world has fallen recently, but still, I think it may be premature to lower the case of 'Greek'.
Thursday August 18th 2011, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Alfred W. (Wolverhampton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Thanks for that however, you have not helped with my question. good bye! Sorry, 'Good bye'!
Thursday August 18th 2011, 3:44 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Alfred: The etymology goes: Greek episkopos -> Latin episcopus -> vulgar Latin (e)biscopus -> Old English bisc(e)op. The "sc" consonant cluster often got changed to "sh" in Old English ( scield -> shield, scip -> ship, scirt -> shirt, etc.).
Thursday August 18th 2011, 5:45 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
These special writings on language, that is words in particular is treasure trove.
Thursday August 18th 2011, 8:33 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I keep hens, they LAY eggs
For me "I SET the table" denotes past tense
Friday August 19th 2011, 4:54 PM
Comment by: Alfred W. (Wolverhampton United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Thanks Ben Zimmer. Much appreciated.

Tuesday August 23rd 2011, 9:23 AM
Comment by: Lesley G. (Lowestoft United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Its all part of the descriptive/prescriptive debate. Fascinating. I am going to buy the book!
Friday August 26th 2011, 1:17 AM
Comment by: Rahul Kunwar (jamshedpur India)
thanks 4 this aid
Wednesday September 7th 2011, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Dakota S.
indeed, a very interesting article.
Sunday September 25th 2011, 5:03 PM
Comment by: Ben W. (MN)
"The tragedy of the lowdown status of a whole nother is that there is no legitimate version"

How about "a whole other," as in "a whole other issue" or "a whole other story"? Doesn't "another" basically mean "an other"?

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Our first excerpt from John McWhorter's new book, "What Language Is."
Play It As It Lays
Is it time to throw in the towel on the "lay"/"lie" distinction?
A Whole Nother Issue
Wendalyn Nichols investigates the common colloquialism, "a whole nother."