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The Celtic Hypothesis

On LanguageLog, John McWhorter spots the Celtic Hypothesis in the wild and explains why it’s not just another crackpot linguistic theory:

The more extreme advocates even claim that English is Celtic grammar with Germanic words. As you might expect, this idea has never penetrated mainstream work on English in any serious way (although none other than J.R.R. Tolkien was a fellow traveller). As such, I was fascinated to run across a casual espousal of the Celtic Hypothesis by a nonspecialist. […]

Take the way English uses DO in negative sentences like HE DOESN’T KNOW, or interrogative ones like DO YOU LIKE CHEESE? It seems so ordinary to an Anglophone, but what language have you ever learned that used DO like that?

It wasn’t a Germanic one, for example. German and the rest do use DO in a fashion related to this (nonstandard German ER TUT DAS SCHREIBEN “He writes that”). But those who have had German classes may well not have known that — it’s strictly nonstandard, rather than perfectly formal as it is in English. And no Germanic language uses DO obligatorily, rather than optionally, in ALL negative and interrogative sentences as English does.

And forget Romance, Arabic, Chinese. In fact, some of the only languages on earth (among 6000) that use DO in this way are Celtic ones spoken in Britain (as well as Celtic prodigal son Breton over in France, which was brought from Britain in the fifth century A.D.). In the late, great Cornish, for example, “Do you love?” was GWRA CARA?, in which GWRA was the DO word.

There are a passel of English grammar features like this, weird as Germanic goes but perfectly ordinary as Celtic.

So the next time you complain about English, remember to blame the Celts!