McWhorter on McCrum’s Globish

Linguist John McWhorter has a pretty devastating review of Robert McCrum’s new book Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language on The New Republic web site. I haven’t read the book, other than looking at some paragraphs via Amazon.com (although my opinion of McCrum’s earlier The Story of English is not very high). So I’ll refrain from commenting on it, except on a few points.

McWhorter comments on and quotes from McCrum:

And never mind the endless misinterpretations and downright solecisms. [...] I was unaware that [...] apparently in Old English it was hard to convey “subtle ideas without the use of cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus like frumwoerc [sic] (= creation), from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work.” Oh—clumsy barbarisms in German like Weltanschauung, Dasein and Schadenfreude?

The full paragraph from Globish reads (p. 31):

The cultural revolution of Christianity both enriched Old English with scores of new words (apostle, pope, angel, psalter) and, just as importantly, also introduced the capacity to articulate abstract thought. Before St. Augustine it was easy enough to express the common experience of everyday life—sun and moon, hand and heart, heat and cold, sea and land—in Old English, but much harder to convey subtle ideas without the use of cumbersome and elaborate German-style portmanteaus like frumweorc (= creation), from fruma, beginning, and weorc, work.

Frumweorc appears only once in the Old English corpus—a hapax legomenon. Given this, we can’t draw any conclusions about how representative this word is of Anglo-Saxon modes of thinking. If a scholar were forced to draw a conclusion, say at gunpoint, it would probably be that the uniquely appearing word is not representative of anything more general. The word appears in the poem “Andreas,” which is found in the tenth-century Vercelli Book. Dating the composition of the poem is problematic, but it certainly post-dates the sixth-century St. Augustine of Canterbury, shredding any sense that McCrum’s argument has. More generally, given the dearth of manuscripts from before the ninth century, any analysis which purports to show through lexical evidence how societal changes were introduced by the Roman Church is highly problematic.

Also, McCrum appears to be using an outdated historical understanding of the conversion of England, one that is based on the eighth-century writings of Bede. Christianity was widespread and well-known in England long before Augustine arrived in 597. In fact King Æthelbert’s wife Bertha, a Frankish princess, was a Christian. Bede ignores the presence of the Celtic church in his Ecclesiastical History, presumably because he was propagandizing for the Roman Catholics. (There are some really interesting theories about the conversion of England in recent historical scholarship. How Roman Christianity was viewed as an exotic “good,” as opposed to the more familiar brands of Celtic and Germanic-Frankish Christianity. English kings sought to control and dispense this “good” to enhance their own power—gift giving and dispensation of treasure was a major source of power for Anglo-Saxon and Germanic chieftains; “Beowulf” is rife with examples of gift giving, for instance. Also, being based in Rome, this particular brand of Christianity did not have a local power base that could challenge the kings’ authorities. Alas, it appears as if McCrum is unaware of them.)

McCrum also refers to the ”The Exeter Book of riddles” on p. 29 of his book. This wording betrays that he really doesn’t understand what The Exeter Book is. While it has riddles in it, it is not a book “of riddles.” The manuscript is the greatest surviving anthology of Old English poetry, with a lot more than just riddles.

While I caution that the above argument is peculiar and may not do justice to the book as a whole, if McCrum’s scholarship on other matters is anything like his knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England, the book is not going to be a very good one.

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