Well, I read John McWhorter's book this evening -- it's neither long nor
My immediate reaction is that he forces two pieces of "evidence" to
carry the weight of some very big conclusions. Specifically, his
assertion of "meaningless do" and "progressive -ing" as grammatical
features of early Welsh/Cornish, imported by these British speakers (the
majority of the population) into Anglo-Saxon as adult second-language
learners of the latter language, seems to be the foundation of the first
third, or more, of the book. His Welsh and Cornish examples are sparse
and not for me to judge.
His other major assertion is that he attributes loss of Anglo-Saxon noun
and verb inflections to adult speakers of Old Norse having learned
Anglo-Saxon, and vice-versa; which, unlike the British/A-S case, was a
very closely-related pair of languages, similar in lexicon and
grammatical structure but with quite a different set of suffixes; so
when speaking each others' languages they simplified the suffixes to the
point that they dropped out. He notes that a dative plural "-um" suffix
was common to O.N. and A-S, and it stuck around while differing suffixes
So, adults learning a quite "foreign" language, e.g. British learning
Germanic, tended to actually learn the details of the second language
and even to add complications to it. Adults learning a very close
relative tended to confuse and simplify the inflections. McWhorter
discusses when and where these things would have happened.
The result was something approximating Middle English but without the
heavy influx of Norman vocabulary. This would have been the common
speech even while "classical" Anglo-Saxon was the written standard until
1066. Then a couple of centuries when the A.S. literary tradition was
suppressed and most writing was in the dominant but minority language,
Norman French, or of course in Latin. When the majority language began
to be written again it was the vernacular, not the essentially lost
classical language of Beowulf etc. Meanwhile the common speech had
picked up a lot of vocabulary, but not much else, from French. Thus,
Middle English: grammatically warped by British 2nd-L learners,
simplified as to inflection by related Germanic learners, and enriched
by Latinate lexicon; that last being the least interesting.
I think that's a fair summary. He goes on to take a look at earlier
developments in proto-Germanic and PIE and many other bits in other
times and places, but this seems to be the pith.
Plausible, but resting on little real (cited) evidence. It's not a
journal article after all, but a popularization. I enjoyed reading it.
PS the split infinitive was consciously done.