English is weird.

No, I’m not talking about the notorious difficulties of English spelling.

Nor am I talking about the oddities of English idioms and compound words, such as the all-too-well-known “Why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway?”

I’m talking about the speculative theory of ancient Phoenician influence on English, as discussed by the great John McWhorter in this week’s episode of Lexicon Valley.

I’ve known the outlines of the comparative and historical linguistics of the English language for 60 years now, and nothing has changed. The original Indo-Europeans moved into what’s now Europe, and the language of some tribes in or around what’s now Germany gradually evolved into Proto-Germanic, which eventually split apart into various languages, one of which became Old English, and there were various incursions by the Norse and so forth who left influences on the language, and then in 1066 the Normans invaded and left gigantic changes in English arising from French influences, from which Old English evolved into Middle English and finally Modern English. That’s the super-condensed gist of it, anyway. And of course there have been borrowings from and influences by scores of other languages, but by and large English is just a Germanic language with a significant but smaller Romance component through Latin by way of Norman French.


It turns out that there are a lot of characteristics of English and other Germanic languages that resemble Phoenician rather than the non-Germanic Indo-European languages. Could the Phoenicians have sailed through the Mediterranean and up to the North Sea? Sure, they were a sea-faring nation, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence there. Of course we know that absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence, but we’re on pretty thin ice here. As I said above, this is a very speculative theory. McWhorter seems fond of speculative theories, and too often he blurs the line between speculation and evidence — here, however, he makes the distinction clear. In any case, it’s worth listening to the entire podcast episode: as the Italians say, “si non è vero, è ben trovato.”



Categories: Linguistics