What sort of a language is English?

It will quickly dawn on even the most linguistically incurious student that in terms of vocabulary, English is a mongrel tongue, a hodge-podge of Germanic and French and Latin etymologies, with more than a little Celtic and Viking and Aztec and Bengali thrown in. There is little the English language cannot digest and regurgitate in the way of new vocabulary.

But structurally? With some exceptions (the Celtic do question auxiliary, for example) English is usually taken to be a West-Germanic language, closely related to modern German and Dutch. The progenitors of our language, we are given to understand, were the Angles and Saxons from Frisia and Anglia, arriving in Britain from the late fifth century.  Whatever languages came later – Old Norse and Norman-French – were grafted on to this stock.

But there are other theories. From the early ninth century, Britain was subject to waves, first of attacks, later of settlement, by the Vikings. The Norsemen came to dominate the island politically in the North and East (the so-called Danelaw); the South and South-West resisted the Viking incursions, and Old English remained the dominant tongue.

We know, however, that Middle English (the English of the Middle Ages) developed from the East Midland dialect, and the East Midlands was substantially in the Danelaw. The conclusion follows that Old English died out, and Old Norse, or the variant of it spoken in the North and East of England, laid the  foundations for modern English.

This would explain why many elements of modern English grammar resemble Norwegian and Danish more than they resemble German and Dutch – objects follow compound verbs, for example (I have read the book, not I have the book read); and prepositions dangle at the end of sentences (who did you go to the pub with?). It would also explain why a great many common words (egg, knife, anger) are of Old Norse and not Old English origin (although not, admittedly, why the reverse is also true).

The theory (first put forward in 2012 by Jan Terle Faarland and Joseph Emmonds of the universities of Oslo and Palacký respectively) has not, I should say, gained general acceptance; but then, there is a lot of entrenched scholarship to overcome. It is, however, more than a little appealing to think of ourselves (linguistically, not racially) as remnant Vikings, distant cousins to all those Norse sagas and seafaring hoodlums, washed up on British shores.


Faustian Pact

Roberto Simanowski is giving a talk as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas on the ontological perils of sharing.

It’s rare to have a student these days who does not have some sort of online presence. It is also, given the slightly elevated average age at OISE Cambridge, not so common to find students obsessed with the idea of ‘sharing’. We have had a few students Instagramming themselves in the school, and some have jotted things on Facebook about us, but the majority are, I suppose, digital cynics or sceptics.

It is a generational thing. Those of an older generation tend to see smart-phone use as a form of functional idiocy; digital natives, on the other hand, move by silent and instantaneous channels through what used to be called cyberspace, but now is so ubiquitous it barely has a name; and see their elders as landlocked dinosaurs, beached whales, rusted hulks run aground.

Those of my generation fall somewhere in between. It is little use my pointing out to the digital natives that I was using computers (admittedly, big ones) before they were born; or that I worked for a software engineering company for several years and sort of know my way around: they still explain Instagram to me slowly and patiently and somewhat hopelessly, and remind me that no one really talks about ‘computers’ these days. And yet to the digital dinosaurs at the other end of the scale I am something of a magician, with my devices and screens, dangerously absorbed in matters beyond their ken.


The same is probably true for a majority of my students. The digital world is a resource and a toolkit, but the empirically real world is where stuff happens. Privacy and solitude are to be valued, and we cannot build such a thing as a digital identity. To share every element of your life promiscuously is to make a Faustian pact, one the consequences of which we have barely begun to understand.

We know best, of course. It is the privilege of middle-age. We still have it, but we also know how to use it. Whatever it is.

Past Papers

Cambridge Assessment, responsible for administering the Cambridge and IELTS examinations, among others, are giving a series of talks this year as part of the Festival of Ideas, on exam structure and past papers. 

treatises_on_natural_science_philosophy_and_mathematics_-_mensurationI wouldn’t describe OISE as an exam factory (and I have worked at one or two) but we get our share of candidates passing through. The exam, or level test, is the supreme quantifier of the age. We are the sum of our results, or so we are led to believe. And so we sweat and worry, and we take our exams. Very often we take exams in order to gain entrance to institutions where we will take yet more exams. Your life is like an accumulator bet: one false step and the whole house of cards will collapse, and you will have to go off in search of new examinations to take.

But how do we prepare? For most exams, it is a question of looking at the past papers. Past papers are the best (perhaps the only) indicators of possible future questions, just as the best indicator of popular baby-names is not the birth of a prince or the advent of some celebrity but whatever last year’s names were. There will be considerable drift over time, but not much change, year to year.

Books of past papers are big business; you could, if you had sufficient patience, read all possible future questions in the shattered mirror of past papers, just as chess masters study and memorise thousands of games, their openings and progressions, the problems they threw up and the solutions proposed.

The problem with learning lessons from the past, as both strong chess masters and human beings routinely discover, is that you may very well be learning the wrong lessons. You are left rehearsing the answers to questions which will never be posed again. The future may be a version of the past, but there are infinite versions available. Better perhaps to burnish up your native skills and trust them to pull you through, treating each exam question as a newly-configured challenge. Better also to bear in mind that asking the right questions is sometimes (often? always?) more important than finding answers to questions that others have posed. Socrates after all was fond of asking questions, and had something to say about the unexamined life. Then again, he hadn’t dreamt of a world in which IELTS was the gateway to success.


It is the Cambridge Festival of Ideas once again, and this week I will be highlighting five events which can be picked up by the keen thinkers amongst us. 

I have blogged before on the remarkable cuckoo-tagging project, organised by the British Trust for Ornithology, noting the following:

Unfortunately, cuckoos are now notable for their absence. I used to hear a cuckoo at the beginning of spring every year without fail. It was commonplace. I had no idea, then, that the cuckoo had returned from West Africa (and to this day, to think of the cuckoo and nightingale populating the forests of the Congo Basin is to experience an acute category malfunction).

Nor did I realise that I would not hear another for many years – I have heard only two cuckoos, I think, in the past quarter century, one in Norway, and one in Greece; and I have heard only one nightingale in my life, in downtown Copenhagen.

In fact the number of ‘British’ cuckoos has halved over the last twenty years, and continues to fall. The tracking project is largely designed to find out why, by tracing the journeys (and, ahem, terminations) of a number of cuckoos. You can follow their individual journeys here.

Larry, to take an example, was in Lancashire on the 21st June this year, but by 24th June had crossed most of Europe, and had arrived in Hungary (just south of a small village called Narai), where he spent a week, taking a breather; he then crossed through Croatia, over the Adriatic to Italy, and by 31st July was in southern Libya, after which he tarried for a month in southern Chad, recuperating from his flight over the Sahara desert; by 1st October he had crossed the equator, and is now in a forest close to Ekoungounou in the Republic of the Congo (not to be confused with the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Last winter Larry sojourned in Angola, so he may have a bit of travelling still to do.


Larry is not the only migratory creature in equatorial Africa. Photojournalist Toby Smith, first Leverhulme artist-in-residence at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, has been packed off in pursuit of the cuckoos, working mainly in Gabon, in part photographing landscapes as a research aid, and in part trying to understand something of the cultures which host the cuckoo at the other end.

An exhibition of Toby Smith’s photographs can be seen at The Podium in the David Attenborough building on the New Museums’ Site, as part of the Festival of Ideas.

Good Enough

“Among the innumerable mortifications which waylay human arrogance on every side may well be reckoned our ignorance of the most common objects and effects, a defect of which we become more sensible by every attempt to supply it. Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiarity with knowledge and conceive themselves informed of the whole nature of things when they are shown their form or told their use; but the speculatist, who is not content with superficial views, harasses himself with fruitless curiosity, and still, as he inquires more, perceives only that he knows less.”

Samuel Johnson, The Idler, Saturday 25th November 1758

Knowledge has its strange inversions, as Dr. Johnson notes, and knowledge of a language is no exception. The more we know of a subject, the more conscious we become of our ignorance.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) for example, physicist and Nobel laureate, talked in an interview of his father’s refusal to placate his son with untruths or easy answers. It was not only the fact that his father did not know the answers to various of Feynman’s infant questions, but that no one really knew which piqued the infant laureate’s interest; and with retrospect he admired that his father had clearly understood the difference between knowing the name of something (inertia, in the example he cites) and actual understanding (we still have no idea why objects in the physical realm should be governed by inertial force).

Thus it is with language. When one of my students asked me recently, for example, why it is possible both to widen or broaden your horizons or your perspective, but not possible for travel to widen the mind; the correct answer should have been, no one knows. Some phrases and collocations harden into invariable idiom; others stay loose and flexible and interchangeable. Similarly, and more arcanely, it is not true that there is no difference between broadening your horizons and widening them. But we struggle to articulate it. Is that that broadening suggests something more spiritual, widening more mechanical? Perhaps. Widening your horizon might be borrowing something from widening your perspective, which involves stepping back from your object; broadening your horizons might echo the idea of travel broadening the reach of your mind as you move towards and assimilate new objects.

Who knows, or even really cares? Most of us in our daily lives work to a principle of good enough. Good enough does not work in physics, nor in many other areas of fine expertise, but working within reasonable tolerances is the stuff of language learning. There is no such thing as perfection: only more or less successful or unsuccessful transactions, or interactions, depending on the goal. No amount of spade-work will fill up the abyss of ignorance, even for a native speaker; but that does not render the constant work ineffective or inappropriate. We cannot all be, all of the time, speculatists, but must be satisfied with the workings of our vulgar and inactive minds.


Cambridge Manuscript

Many students will by now have revelled in the exhibition of medieval illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, but may have missed the recent discovery of an eleventh century psalter which almost certainly belonged to Saint Thomas à Becket, and which he may also have been holding at the moment of his martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.


The psalter has been in the Parker Library of Corpus Christi College in Cambridge for many years, and its association with Becket was discovered by chance. Christopher de Hamel, an expert on medieval manuscripts, was chatting with a colleague, and remarked on the fact that while in the middle ages objects associated with saints were generally revered, the same was not true of manuscripts owned by saints. His colleague said that he knew of one exception, and directed de Hamel’s attention to a very early description of a psalter which Becket was reputed to have been holding when he was struck down. De Hamel recognised the manuscript described as one held in the Parker Library, and the various connections fell into place.

The psalter in question was probably made for the eleventh century Saint Alphege, also martyred, in his case by the Danes at Greenwich; it would have passed into the hands of Becket, who held Alphege in particular esteem, and after Becket’s death was placed on his shrine at Canterbury. How it then filtered down to a library in a Cambridge college is anyone’s guess, but given that those libraries are among the most efficient and durable cultural filter-fish in the world, lying for centuries with their baleen-plates agog, it is perhaps not that surprising.

Cambridge Makespace

Where do inventors go in Cambridge when they want to build their prototypes? I always assumed that they would potter down to their shed, or perhaps into their garage, but it turns out not every inventor has a 3-d printer or industrial lathe or laser cutter at the bottom of the garden.


One of our students (now ex-students), the inestimable Yuji Ishikawa of Toshiba, discovered the answer. He spent quite a few evenings at the Cambridge Makespace on Mill Road, busying himself with the various software tools they have there, and seeking the company, I suppose, of like-minded individuals (Yuji is not an inventor, so far as I know; but he is an R&D software engineer working in the field of computer vision and self-driving cars).

Makespace is a 4000 sqft workshop stacked with the sort of tools you can only operate if you tuck your tie into your shirt: band saws, circular saws, drill presses, lathes, mitre saws, a glass-working kiln, a grinder, and so on. They also provide electronics workbenches, a vacuum former, 3-d printers, CAD workstations. And a sewing machine.

The space used to be part of the Institute for Manufacturing (a faculty of the University of Cambridge), and is available to members only (on a minimum three-month membership). I do not know that we have many students in need of a glass-working kiln, but it is nice to know where to go if the inspiration strikes.