- English: The language of the Vikings by Joseph Embley Emonds and Jan Terje Faarlund
English has horrendous orthography, an extremely complicated inventory of vowels, a few hundred irregular verbs, a huge vocabulary, and other features that make it ill-equipped to be a global language used by millions of people who must learn it in adulthood (Pullum 2015).
This results to some degree from the fact that English is a global language in a different sense, one that has been shaped in part by much population movement, both of different populations moving into England in ancient times and, more recently, of English speakers taking their language into many parts of the world in what is referred to euphemistically as ‘language contact’, often a brutal process serving to suppress and replace the indigenous languages of the colonized. At different stages of history England was dominated by invaders: British, migrants from all over the Roman Empire, Celts, Anglo-Saxons in the sixth century, Scandinavians in the ninth and tenth [End Page 474] centuries, and Norman French in the eleventh, all of whom left an imprint on the language of the residents. In modern times the language has absorbed words from the many languages encountered in the process of colonization. All of this, of course, has contributed to the multiplicity of vocabulary, different words from different roots with similar or even identical meanings.
Nonetheless, the standard textbook view is that English is some kind of ‘gradual and imperceptibly changing object which smoothly floats through time and space’ (Kiparsky 1968:175), changing from Old to Middle to Early Modern and then to present-day English, with various gradations in between but no major disruptions.
The early generativists dealing with change, by contrast, saw abstract grammars changing as children encountered new ambient language. Kiparsky went on: ‘the transmission of language is discontinuous, and a language is recreated by each child on the basis of the speech data it hears’ (see Lightfoot 2016). There may be new phenomena that trigger a single change at the abstract level, yielding a new structure that serves to generate many new phenomena that enter the language at the same time. This approach anticipated neo-Darwinian biologists’ rejection of Darwin’s gradualism and their appeal to punctuated equilibrium (Eldridge & Gould 1972), in turn based on Ernst Mayr’s model of geographic speciation. This led to a focus on structural shifts across many historical disciplines, some known as Thomian ‘catastrophes’ or phase transitions at different stages of investigation.
Linguists also began identifying such saltations and understood them in terms of children acquiring new I-languages when exposed to new ambient language, such that the new E-language triggers new I-languages. Rich and deep explanations have been developed for some syntactic changes.
Anybody who has examined early English knows that there was substantial influence from Norse, many have noted major differences between Old and Middle English, and some scholars have claimed that Middle English’s surprising properties result from a kind of creole status (Bailey & Maroldt 1977, Görlach 1986).
Joseph Emonds, a distinguished theoretical syntactician, and Jan Terje Faarlund, a leading Scandinavianist, now offer a radical challenge to the philologists’ conception of English as progressing gradually and often imperceptibly from one stage to another. E&F postulate that so-called early Middle English, spoken and written in the East Midlands in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, represents a new language, which they call Anglicized Norse, having a Scandinavian syntax alongside words descended from Old English antecedents. They build on work by philologists and syntacticians who argued for analyses that E&F now construe as aspects of a more comprehensive phase transition, and they muster considerable evidence for their analysis (for example, Denison’s (1993:Ch. 9) work showing that Old English lacked subject raising).
E&F tease apart syntactic characteristics of West Germanic (Dutch, Frisian, High and Low German, and their later offshoots Yiddish and Afrikaans) and North Germanic (Scandinavian), all well-analyzed...