Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Language: 'Genetic' Relatedness

When two languages have a common ancestor, we say that they are 'genetically' related.  This has nothing to do with genetics in the biological sense, and it doesn't imply that speakers of genetically related languages are themselves genetically related.  But languages share ancestors like organisms share ancestors, and so genetic relatedness is the metaphor historical linguists use.

Unlike with organisms, genetic relatedness rarely tells us everything we need to know about a language.  If you said that English is a West Germanic language or an Indo-European language, you'd be saying things that are true, but that are just not the whole picture.

English has plenty of non-Indo-European-derived words, including 'person' from Etruscan φersu and 'shark' from Yucatec Mayan xoc (which entered English around 1585).  The Germanic languages themselves appear to show the presence of a non-Indo-European substrate language - that is to say, a non-Indo-European language that crossed with Indo-European at some point in European prehistory, affecting the structure and phonology of proto-Germanic.  While proto-Germanic is clearly an Indo-European language, it shows the presence of some obviously non-Indo-European languages.

English's structures are not wholly West Germanic, either - the idea of forming a question with the verb 'to do' as an auxiliary, e.g., 'do you like linguistics?', apparently derives from a Brythonic precedent.  North Germanic languages contributed so much to English after the Norse invasions/migrations that even the verb 'to be' is partly Norse; 'he is' is entirely Anglo-Saxon, while 'they are' is entirely Norse.  Words like 'egg', 'sky', and 'bag' have origins in Old Norse as well.

It's not that English isn't a West Germanic language, but rather that that fact is not the whole picture, and in order to account for the English spoken today, or at any period, we have to look at all the parts.  And as ever with human language and culture, those parts come from all over the world, and have origins you may not initially suspect.


  1. ”English's structures are not wholly West Germanic, either - the idea of forming a question with the verb 'to do' as an auxiliary, e.g., 'do you like linguistics?', apparently derives from a Brythonic precedent. “

    It’s even more general than that. In English until recently one used to say “he doth dine” in purely affirmative sentences without any emphatic connotation. So it was not only in interrogatives that “do” showed up. Moreover, in spoken Welsh there are several verbs (be, do, go) used as auxiliaries in periphrastic tenses. It would appear the present progressive tense in English (the verb to be + the -ing form of the verb, i.e., “you are dining” and “are you dining?”) also results from a Brythonic influence. In all other Germanic it would be the equivalent of “you dine” and “dine you?”

    But in Welsh the verb “do” is only used in the preterite and always comes at the beginning of the sentence whether it is affirmative, negative or interrogative.

    So I wonder if the inversion of the subject & verb in “do you dine?” is purely a result of Celtic influence. Maybe it’s a kind of Celtic modification of a Germanic syntactical trait in interrogatives ?

    In no Romance language is the subject/verb order inverted to make a question. Except in (formal) French. Even though in daily speech one would ask “tu dines ?”, in prescriptive & literary French it is the rather stilted “dines-tu ?” This is supposed to be a Germanic influence, where the subject-verb order is always inverted in interrogatives.

    I’ve always found it odd that Spanish and Italian have the same construction of the present progressive, and essentially the same usage of it, as English. But standard French definitely hasn’t and can’t even form a present progressive in the strict sense. You can’t say “tu es dinant?” in analogy with the Spanish “estás comiendo?” or Italian “stai cenando?”. I wonder if it can be Celtic influence in Spanish and Italian ? And maybe French also had it at some point but in the course of standardisation lost it ? European Portuguese also lacks this form but Brazilian seems to have acquired it under influence from Spanish.


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