Why Things Aren’t as Simple as We Want Them to Be
(This post comes out of a combination of an interesting article this morning and a conversation yesterday with someone who was trying to assign oversimplified cause-and-effect on a project issue.)
Today’s NY Times has an article suggesting Indo-European languages (from English to Hindi) arose not on the steppes but in rural Turkey.
To explain it, they offer a chart showing the derivation of various languages from this proto-Indo-European tongue. Here’s a part of the chart:
You can see English in the middle of the rust-colored branches of this tree, capitalized because on the Internet that’s how you shout. (Or maybe just because the article was written in English.) The chart suggests English (and its variant Old English) have been distinct languages for about 1500 years, which is technically true based on grammatical structure.
The real world intervened, as it so often does. Consider this variant:
Throughout the first millennium, the Angles and Saxons (hence “Anglo-Saxon”) invaded, conquered,1 and transformed England… and English. The languages didn’t just split off at some point, but the influencing continued. But they weren’t alone.
Some historians think the Frisians (from what’s now the northwest coast of Germany, more or less) also placed not just settlers but high-status merchants into at least southeast England about 1200-1500 years ago. In other words, as shown by the first (and dotted/speculative) arrow, Frisian didn’t just split off from early English but continued to influence it. Frisian, by the way, sounds surprisingly similar to English… or vice versa.
The Danes and Jutes also settled parts of England about 1200 years ago (the second arrow), with at least some influence on English.
But the third and fourth arrows are the big ones. William the Conqueror did his thing at Hastings in 1066, and for the next 200 years Norman French became the language of business and government and power in England. That’s the big reason there are so many French-origin words in our language.
Then, in the late 1500s, there was another French invasion, this time a cultural invasion (the last arrow). This was a significant influence on the language during Shakespeare’s time, for example; he both mocks it and revels in the freedom and opportunity for expression it offers.
So structurally, grammatically, you can put up the top chart and say, English split from German about 1900 years ago, and leave it at that. That’s fine if you’re a linguist. But it doesn’t tell the truth about English.
The real world is a lot more complicated.
And recognize that complex questions rarely have simple answers.