The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Politely ignoring linguistic primitivity

M.J. Harper (The Secret History of the English Language–see previous post) has been taken to task for an apparent misunderstanding of how evolution works: A form can’t evolve from another living form, goes the dogma; rather, two related forms are said to share a common ancestor. So, for example, humans did not evolve from chimpanzees; rather, humans and chimpanzees share a recent (5 million years ago) common ancestor. Harper’s suggestion that the Germanic and Latinate languages “evolved from” Modern English (or something pretty close to it) sounds like making the faux pas that humans evolved from chimps, as if chimps haven’t been changing for the past 5 million years just like we have.

But that’s just political correctness—or, I suppose, good manners. The professional insistence on not calling one extant form a descendent of another extant form is really just a matter of politeness. It would offend fragile human sensibilities to say we evolved from chimps—I mean, just look at them!—so we say instead “from a common ancestor.” And the chimps feel better too, because yeah, they haven’t been just slacking off either; they’re nothing like those boobs of the Pliocene. When you assume evolution moves at the same pace for everyone, everyone saves face; everyone keeps up appearances that “we’ve all been evolving all this time, everyone evolves the same amount, nobody’s calling anyone ‘primitive.’

But just because a word or a concept can be used derogatorily doesn’t mean it’s not descriptive. Let’s put aside political correctness (and, heck, manners) just a moment. Evolutionary biologists know that some species and some adaptations are more primitive than others. Evolution does not occur at a constant rate for all species, and there is no reason one living species couldn’t have branched off another living species that, for whatever reason, did not change at all in the interim. When speciation occurs due to geographical separation, for example, there is nothing in principle mandating that one branch could become radically different due to rapidly changing local selection pressures while the other branch could be relatively unchanged after a given period of time due to selection pressures that remained constant in its particular neck of the woods. Speciation is not Newtonian: It doesn’t demand an “equal and opposite reaction” on the part of both bifurcating species, esp. if geography is the reason for the split.

Cockroaches and coelacanths and sharks are called “living fossils” because they’ve stayed the same while the world around them has changed more rapidly. It’s not a sign of being old and stuffy; it’s a sign of a good adaptation, one that nature hasn’t found a way to improve upon in its particular niche. Harper is suggesting that this is what happened with English—or, English as she was spake in Neolithic Britain. Some sort of English (he argues) was spoken in the dim mists of prehistory by a group that settled throughout Europe. On the Continent, affected by different historical and demographic pressures, this ur-English bifurcated into two broad linguistic streams: German and French, which in turn evolved into various local forms. But on the island of Britain, it changed much more slowly. (I gather that place-name archaeology and genetics are starting to corroborate this idea, at least somewhat, although linguists will have nothing to do with it.)

In other words, following Harper’s line of thinking, saying German and French didn’t evolve from Modern English is trivially true only in the sense that they didn’t evolve from the English spoken in our day, but the English spoken thousands of years ago. Yet, if that ancient English was so close to Modern English to be regarded as, essentially, the same language, then why not say German and French evolved from English?

Well, I already answered this question: It’s just politeness that dictates you don’t say that. The Germans and French must be allowed to save face, here. No doubt, should Harper’s paradigm gain more acceptance, manners will dictate that we name the English spoken in pre-Roman times something else, like “proto-English” or whatever (since “Old English” is already misappropriated by the Anglo-Saxonists), and it will be called a “common ancestor” to modern English and the bitter tongues of the Continent.


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

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