Why English is not a Romance language

A few days ago, a friend of mine (herself ABD in English literature) was told that it’s only natural that she writes English like a native, since her mother tongue is Spanish “and English is a Romance language after all”.


OK, jokes aside: it is undeniably true that if you go by vocabulary origins, the vocabulary of an educated native speaker, or the 80,000-odd entries in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary will have a plurality or even a majority of words of Romance origin.


But remember: many Latin- (and Greek-)derived words are actually part of the educated speaker vocabulary in most Indo-European languages—particularly scientific, medical, and legal terms. This is not unique to English.


The “operational definition” of a Romance language, according to most mainstream linguists, is a direct descendant of Vulgar Latin — the colloquial counterpart to the classical written language. After the [West-]Roman Empire fell apart, the various dialects spoken in Italia, Gallia, Hispania, Lusitania, Dacia evolved into separate languages that we now call Italian, French, Spanish/Castilian, Portuguese, and Romanian, respectively.

In contrast, Old English developed mostly from Germanic sources — the speech of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, with later the addition of Old Norse from the invading Vikings. If you read Beowulf in the original, you (a) will need a dictionary or a parallel translation; (b) if you’d mistake it for any language other than English, it’d likely be something Scandinavian.

Hence, the oldest and most commonly used words — what in Hebrew we call the Elef Milim [“One Thousand Words” language primer] vocabulary — are about 83% Germanic in origin.

What about the Celtic language spoken by the ancient Britains? It used to be received wisdom that the Britons were wiped out by the invaders, but recent genetic studies have shown a surprisingly small percentage of Anglo/Saxon/Jute genetic material. John McWhorter, in his book Our Magnificent Bastard Language, explains that in all probability, the invaders were (nearly) all male, took wives from the Britons, lorded it over them — and the Britons assimilated into the new society. Now as he explains: usually when you learn a new language as an adult (through immersion rather than formal schooling, at that), even if you learn the vocabulary fairly quickly, the grammar and syntax of your native tongue tend to stubbornly persist. As a result, English to this day has some grammatical peculiarities that are unique among the Germanic languages but can be found among the Celtic ones: for example, the interrogative, emphatic, and negational uses of  “do” (“Do you like chocolate?”, “I did do my homework”, “I don’t like mondays”.)

The transition from Old English to Middle English — from the English of Beowulf to that of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, if you like — is conventionally marked at 1066, the Norman Invasion. And yes, as you can see from the pie chart above, William the Conqueror/Guillaume le Conquérant and his nobles did leave their linguistic imprint on English with a vengeance. It took until Henry V for England to have a monarch who was more comfortable speaking and writing (Middle) English than French!

But, crucially, the core of English remained—both in vocabulary and in grammar. For instance, English proudly sports three grammatical genders — male, female, and neuter — unlike all Romance languages (except Romanian, sort-of) who appear to have inherited their dual gender from Vulgar Latin. (Classical Latin of course did have a neuter gender.) And what typically happened when the Old English word met its Norman French counterparts, is that the language has preserved both — sometimes as synonyms, sometimes as different nuances or usages (e.g., sheep/cow/pig for the animal, mutton/beef/pork for the meat).

Early Modern English — the idiom Shakespeare wrote in — was ushered in by two phenomena.

First there was the introduction of the printing press to the British Isles by William Caxton: after the Reformation, this enabled the first widely spread printed books, namely the Book of Common Prayer and later the King James Bible. This greatly accelerated the process of standardizing the written language, like it did in other European countries (cf. Statenbijbel for Dutch, Lutherbibel  in the Protestant parts of Germany,…).

Second, during the English Renaissance, authors seeking to show off how well-read they were imported Latin and Greek words by the galleon load. (This happened to other languages as well, but perhaps less egregiously so.) Oftentimes, the “learned” synonyms coexist to this day with plainer English words—in some cases making the latter ones “quaint” and “archaic”.

Of course, words were absorbed later from English colonies (veranda, pajama,…) and from foreign professionals (e.g., many nautical terms in English are Dutch imports, like schooner, lee, starboard, keel,…) But in the larger scheme of things, these have affected only English vocabulary, and only at the sub-percent level each.

Structurally and in core vocabulary, English is and remains a Germanic language that just happens to merrily assimilate extended vocabulary from any and all sources — the two main ones undeniably Romance. I really like McWhorter’s term “Magnificent Bastard Tongue”.

Finally, there are researchers who have sought to quantify the degree of kinship between languages — see, e.g., this non-paywall overview paper by Maurizio Serva. The metric used is typically the Levenshtein Distance between lists of the most frequently and universally used words  — these 100-word or so “I have a little list”s are still an order of magnitude smaller than the 1,000-word corpus mentioned above. A “family tree” of Indo-European languages constructed in this matter firmly places English in the Germanic group—nearest to the Scandinavian languages, in fact. This is Fig. 1 from Serva’s paper:





Embedding Spotify playlists on WordPress

Hmm, thanks to this article (via Instapundit), I went digging in the wordpress.com support database and found this helpful explanation. Basically, you just need to enclose the link to the track or playlist in HTML view with leftsquarebracketspotify yourlinkrightsquarebracket. Examples below, taken from the WP support article:

UPDATE: and here is one of my own:

“Competitors, not opposites”: what Apple iPhone vs. Samsung Galaxy can teach us about politics

A friend got into an argument with somebody who claimed only the “far-right” could be fascist, and that, of course, the “far-left” is the opposite of the far right.

This is indeed the version that was successfully peddled when I was growing up in Europe. After all, communists were internationalist, fascists and Nazis were nationalist, the far-left was anticlerical or outright anti-religious while right-authoritarian regimes typically paid lip service to the church when not outright in bed with it, and… “far-left” and “far-right” were on opposite sides in WW II.

Except… when they were not. The inconvenient fact of the Non-Aggression Pact (and Molotow and ‘von’ Ribbentrop merrily dividing up Poland between their empires) is either forgotten or glossed over, as “a maneuver to gain time” (after Stalin butchered 90% of his generals and 50% of his colonels during the Great Purges). And there is the inconvenient fact that the full name of the Nazi party is “National Socialist German Workers Party” (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP, for which “Nazi” is a typical German-style nickname). Also, let me quote some program points of self-styled US socialist Bernie Sanders:

we demand:
* Abolition of unearned (work and labour) incomes. Breaking of debt (interest)-slavery.
* […] personal enrichment through a war must be designated as a crime against the people. Therefore, we demand the total confiscation of all war profits.
* We demand the nationalisation of all (previous) associated industries (trusts).
* We demand a division of profits of all heavy industries.
* We demand an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare.
* […] immediate communalization of the great warehouses and their being leased at low cost to small firms, the utmost consideration of all small firms in contracts with the State, county or municipality.
* […] Benefit for the community goes before benefit for the individual [*]

Oops, my bad, these are actually from the “immutable” 25-Point Program of the NSDAP. There was even a hardcore economic-left faction inside the NSDAP, led by the party’s #2 man, Gregor Strasser, and his brother Otto Strasser. Otto fled abroad in 1930: Gregor was among those liquidated in the 1934 Night Of The Long Knives, in which potential and imaginary contenders for Hitler’s [y”sh] throne were liquidated and old scores settled. and cemented the primacy of the SS over the SA (the “Brownshirts”). Strasserism was later to be influential in postwar European far-“right” circles, and gave rise to a spinoff movement that called itself “National Bolshevism” [sic].

Of course, those of us who have read Isaac Asimov’s “Second Foundation” remember that a circle has no beginning and no end. “Les extrèmes se touchent” (the extremes touch each other), as the French expression goes. And indeed, especially among the older generation of Europeans, there is a sense that the political left-right division isn’t so much on a linear scale as on a circle, and that far-“left” and far-“right” have much more in common with each other than with the temperate zone of politics. This notion gained currency during the 1950s, at the height of the cold war, and is perhaps most eloquently expressed in Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism“.

What is totalitarianism, indeed? Unlike ‘merely’ authoritarian regimes (like the Tsars of old), totalitarian ones are not content to control the actions of their subject — they want the whole person, control their thoughts as well as their actions.

In contemporary American political discourse, the “left” (both moderate and radical) stresses the state and the collective, while the “right” emphasizes private or local initiative and the individual. In other words, the left-right axis is not internationalist vs. nationalist like in Europe, but collectivist vs. individualist. It corresponds (with the arrows reversed) to the horizontal axis on the Pournelle Chart. On this spectrum, both Communism and National Socialism are firmly on the same side, as are Socialism and classical Fascism. [**]

For the above, I submit that “Socialism and Fascism”, or indeed communists and Nazis, are opposites only in the same sense that an iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy are opposites, or that macOS and Windows are opposites. They are merely two competing brands of the same basic product.

The product, in this case, is totalitarian collectivism.

For all the heated (and at times hysterical) rhetoric of their partisans, one would think that macOS and Windows are polar opposites. The same is true of iPhones and their Android competitors. Instead, what we have is the same basic product (a smartphone, a computer operating system) with different implementation philosophies. As they compete with each other (in largely the same market space) and copy or otherwise absorb each other’s most popular features, their interfaces even start to resemble each other.

Likewise with the classical “opposites”. They carefully studied each other’s propaganda, going back to even Hitler [y”sh] himself. They even recruited among the same ‘customer base’: entire Sturmbannen (battalions) of the SA (the “brownshirt” militia [**]) in urban areas with a large working class were known among the Nazi top as “beefsteak battalions” — brown on the outside, red on the inside. Furthermore: the degree to which the NSDAP regime availed itself in its propaganda of what we now call ‘social justice’ rhetoric (‘social justice’ for Aryans only, naturally), and the extent to which the construction of a fairly elaborate welfare state was bankrolled by the expropriation of Jewish capital, has been documented at book length by the German journalist and Holocaust historian Götz Aly (himself a former far-left activist).

The main “difference” between mass murderers like Hitler on one hand, and Stalin or Mao on the other hand, is not so much the degree to which they demanded submission of the individual to the state (where they were in broad agreement), but the specific distinctions which they leveraged for power: ethnic origins vs. class. And this has persisted to this day: increasingly, one reads and hears shrill rhetoric on the post-Marxist, multiculti, intersectional left where one only needs to change the labels to get something indistinguishable from a totalitarian collectivist screed from the nominally “opposite” side.

Too many people on the left think that, while electrocution is bad, it can be solved by reversing the polarity of the current. This makes them competitors of what they claim to oppose, not opponents. Opponents are the ones who want to cut the power (such as small-government conservatives) — and of course get called names for doing so, as they are a threat to the political and cultural hegemony of the “left”.


UPDATE: welcome Instapundit readers!


[*] Sounds better in the original German: Gemeinnütz vor Eigennütz.

[**] Of course, in most political discourse, “fascist” no longer seems to have another stable meaning than as a generic insult, like “poopyhead”. Already in 1992, Robert Hughes was decrying this in “The Culture of Complaint“.

[***] The Brownshirts were a key factor in Hitler’s rise to power, but were emasculated during the 1934 Night of the Long Knives. They continued to exist but had become a shadow of themselves. Henceforth, the SS — originally a mere protection squad for the leader (hence the name, Schutzstaffeln) — was the real power behind the throne.


Hiroshima Day post: Rush, “Manhattan Project” and Iron Maiden, “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns”

This powerful Rush song about the Manhattan Project begs to be shared on this day.

Imagine a time
when it all began
In the dying days of a war
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first
would be sure to do their worst
They always had before…

Imagine a man
where it all began
A scientist pacing the floor
In each nation
always eager to explore
To build the best big stick
To turn the winning trick
But this was something more…


Imagine a man when it all began
The pilot of “Enola Gay”
Flying out of the shockwave
on that August day
All the powers that be, and the course of history
Would be changed forevermore​…

As a bonus, here is a video of another, heavier song about the same subject, named after the first published account of the project: Robert Jungk’s “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (original German title: Heller als tausend Sonnen)

Language registers, diglossia, and the Greek language struggle

Many languages are spoken in different registers for different levels of formality. For instance, Martin Joos recognizes the following five “registers” in English:

  • Static: the most formal register reserved for laws, contracts and other legal documents, religious ceremonies. Highly reliant on fixed (static) phrases, which may be archaic in their wording;
  • Formal: one-way participation (nonfiction book, academic article, lecture). Most extensive vocabulary, precise/pedantic use of technical vocabulary, precise definitions;
  • Consultative: two-way professional communication, e.g., teacher/student, senior/junior researcher, doctor/patient,…;
  • Casual: ordinary informal speech;
  • Intimate: between close family and friends. Nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression), intonation, and private/insider vocabulary and references may make speech hard to understand to an outsider.

English may have an enormous vocabulary, but it is a “weak-grammar” language. In languages with more complex grammars, the same five basic settings of course exist, but the distance between the registers becomes a matter of more than just vocabulary and the (dis)use of some formal expressions. For instance, in German, there is a noticeable difference — even in “High German” regions — between the standard literary language and the Mundart (spoken vernacular). In Flanders, older people still speak West-Flemish, Limburgish,… dialects to each other, while in formal settings even they will revert to standard Dutch (which used to be known by the rather politically incorrect name of ABN or Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands/Common Civilized [!] Dutch).

In extreme forms, the distance between Dachsprache (lit. “roof language”, umbrella language) and spoken vernacular may reach the point of diglossia — the coexistence of two distinct languages. In the parts of Germany closest to Holland, Plattdeutsch (Low German, or Plattdüütsch, if you like) coexists with standard [High] German (Hochdeutsch). In fact, the Plattdeutsch and Dutch dialects across the border are a classic example of a dialect continuum. In the Arabic-speaking world, different local vernaculars (e.g., Moroccan and Syrian Arabic) are sometimes not even mutually intelligible: hence, a permanent state of diglossia exists between the local vernaculars and their common Dachsprache, Modern Standard Arabic (based on the classical literary language).

Ancient Rome knew a similar state of diglossia, between the literary Latin that we learned in school and so-called Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris, i.e., common speech).[*] After the fall of the West-Roman Empire, provincial dialects of Vulgar Latin diverged into the separate languages we now call French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian,… (In fact, the very definition of a Romance language is its descent from Vulgar Latin.)

Without going down the rabbit hole of the evolution of ancient Greek, suffice to say that the classical (Attic) Greek some of us still learned in school existed in diglossia with Koine Greek (common/vernacular Greek). Unlike for Vulgar Latin, there is a substantial written corpus of written Koine Greek, above all the Christian New Testament and the Septuagint (the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/Tana”kh/Christian Old Testament).

Over time, with the rise and fall of the Byzantine/East-Roman empire followed by Ottoman and other foreign rules, Koine Greek evolved into the vernaculars of different parts of the Hellenosphere.

The emergence of Greek nationalism in the late 18th-early 19th Century culminated in  Ioannes Kapodistrias becoming the first Prime Minister (1827-1831) of a newly independent Greece. Obviously, the Greek nationalist intelligentsia was keen on establishing a standard Greek language — but which Greek language?

One school of thought, led by Greco-French linguist Ioannis Psycharis, argued in favor of refining and unifying the cluster of vernacular Greek dialects into one standard Demotiki Glossa (“people’s language”, i.e., Demotic Greek). Another school, led by Prof. Georgios Hatzidakis, considered Demotic to be little more than an argot and instead strove to create/reconstruct  an archaic, neo-Classical Greek which they called Katharevousa (“purifying” [form], originally conceived by Greek Enlightenment figure Adamantios Korais). Thus, they hoped to recapture the splendor of the ancient literary language in a modern idiom.

Tempers grew hot between the groups, occasionally reaching the level of literal fistfights rather than mere literary “battle” between Demotic and Katharevousa poets, authors, and playwrights. After the 1912-3 liberation of Macedonia and later the establishment of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, the latter would become a stronghold of the Demotic faction, as against the Katharevousa faction at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

One might naively expect the most conservative and nationalistic element of society to have embraced Katharevousa. In fact, things were not so simple: Psycharis himself was an early proponent of the Megali (Greater [Greece]) idea, and the at least somewhat anticlerical Korais associated both Demotic Greek and its direct ancestor Koine with the “corrupt” Byzantine church establishment. The pre-WW II dictator Metaxas appears to have favored Demotic, as he considered the complexity of Katharevousa to be an obstacle to his goal of cultural Hellenization of all minorities.

A third, pragmatic (ahem) middle view took hold in parts of the political establishment (most notably with the great Liberal politician Venizelos): namely, a form of institutionalized diglossia. As per Venizelos’s 1917 school reforms, early schooling of children would be in the much easier Demotic form, while once they advanced beyond the first few grades of primary school, the instruction would switch to the more demanding Katharevousa.

What tipped the scales permanently in favor of Demotic appears to have been the great influx of Greek refugees following the Greek-Turkish War and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which both set the borders and mandated a forced population exchange.  Many of those refugees had spoken Turkish all their lives and needed to be taught Greek nearly or completely from scratch. The obvious approach, if they were to be acculturated quickly, was to teach them “easy Greek” first and “high Greek” later. “Later,” in most cases, never came.

One last push for Katharevousa was made during the Colonels’ Regime (1967-74): a 1972 official pamphlet dismissed Demotiki as a mere “jargon” that “doesn’t even have a grammar” but appears to have had limited appeal at best.

Upon the restoration of democracy, one final language reform took place. On 30 April 1976, Article 2 of Law 309  defined Modern Greek as:

.. the Demotic that has been developed into a Panhellenic instrument of expression by the Greek People and the acknowledged writers of the Nation, properly constructed, without regional and extreme forms.

and stipulated that it be the language of instruction in schools starting with the 1977-8 school year. Finally, the polytonic accent/diacriticals system was abolished in 1982.

This “Standard Modern Greek” (as linguists call it) is recognizably different from the classical language taught in European secondary schools. You immediately notice the “h” being dropped, the “eta” being pronounced as “i”/”ee” rather than nasal é, the “beta” almost invariably being pronounced as “v”, and in general a disregard of much of the declensions, cases,… and other grammatical intricacies that those of us who went to a continental European Atheneum or Gymnasium, or a British “public school”, wracked our brains learning.

All the same, proponents of Katharevousa won the argument in one major area: the replacement of foreign loan words in Demotic by “native” Greek neologisms (ahem). A computer, for instance, became ypologistí in Standard Modern Greek, a router dromologití, and a printer an ektypotís  (unless you mean the profession, which is a typographos).

This latter phenomenon has a parallel in modern Hebrew. Going back to the first modern Hebrew lexicographer, the intrepid Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, linguists tried to coin Hebrew neologisms for modern concepts and artifacts that Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew had no words for, rather than import foreign loan words. This process (to which I will dedicate a separate blog post) continues to this day at the hands of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Some of these coinages are universally accepted (machshev/thinking machine for computer, tzag or masach for display or screen, monit for taxi, kinor for violin, …), others never caught on (sach-rachok, itself a calque of the German Fernsprecher, never displaced telefon), yet others coexist as formal terms with informal vernacular (meteg with the English “switch” [in IT contexts] or the German Schalter [for a light or power switch], teka with the German Stecker [plug], natav with “router”,…)  [**]

And of course, the French Language Academy succeeded in displacing (at least outside slang) “franglais” terms like “le computer” with “l’ordinateur”, “le printer” with “l’imprimante”, “un file” (the English word, not the French for a traffic jam) with “un logiciel”, etc. and even “Email” by “courriel” (a portmanteau of “courrier électronique”) …


[*] Vulgus=the common people, hence the derogatory meaning of “vulgar” (EN) or “vulgair” (NL, DE, FR,…) in other languages.

[**] Amusingly, native Israelis often stare at me when an immigrant like myself refers to “do’al” (short for doar elektroni, the proper word for Email) instead of “mail”…