36: M.J. HARPER
Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues! The case of M.J. (Mick) Harper arose in the context of my last post. Some readers are aware of him, and I am often asked about him when I identify myself as a skeptical linguist; so, while the iron is hot, here goes!
Harper presents the astounding view that Modern English, while related to Old English, is not descended from it, and that Middle English therefore did not exist at all except as a highly artificial literary variety (although this would not be his own preferred wording at this point). He also suggests (more obviously speculating) that Modern English has existed since ancient times, when it was current across Western Europe, and is indeed the ancestor of most modern Western European languages, including the Romance languages; that Latin was therefore not the ancestor of these languages and was in fact invented; and that the vast majority of the etymologies given for English words are therefore mistaken.
Harper thus challenges all scholarly opinion on the subject, purporting to offer an alternative, more truly scholarly position. But he does not fulfil the standard obligations of scholarship: there is no scholarly apparatus of any kind. Perhaps most strikingly, there are virtually no references to the scholarly literature, and opposing views and scholars are mentioned only to be dismissed with often facetious contempt as biased and hidebound. And on the evidence available Harper’s knowledge of linguistics is not adequate for the task he undertakes here; he is out of his depth in both factual and theoretical linguistic matters. For example, he repeatedly seizes on individual ‘anomalies’ as weapons with which to belabour scholarship. Some of these are spurious; others are genuine but are already familiar to linguists and are the subject of intense study. One good example is the apparently rapid series of changes which distinguish Middle English from Old English. The genuinely rapid lexical changes can be attributed to the flood of French loanwords which entered English after the Norman Conquest of 1066; but a major reason for the grammatical differences lies in the fact that literary Middle English was based on a Midland dialect, while literary Old English was almost entirely based on a Southern dialect. The two dialects were already divergent before the Norman Conquest, and many changes that affected early Midland dialects did not take place in Southern dialects; there is no evidence that the changes in the Midland dialects were markedly more rapid than any other linguistic changes. (This particular case also illustrates the general point that, like many non-linguists who venture into the discipline, Harper grasps issues involving vocabulary much more readily than structural issues involving phonology and grammar.) The case for the mainstream account of the history of English is much stronger than Harper thinks, and the alleged anomalies much less damaging. And, even if Harper were correct in his arguments against the standard view, he does not give readers sufficient reason to accept his alternative story.
Harper also makes broad overgeneralizations about what scenarios and changes are or are not plausible. For instance, he believes that two diachronically related languages could equally well be related in either order. For most such cases this is simply false: it is easy to show, both by internal evidence and by cross-linguistic evidence on the nature of linguistic change, that (for instance) the verb system of Italian is descended from that of everyday spoken (‘Vulgar’) Latin, rather than vice versa. (The novel Italian tense morphemes are clearly derived from Vulgar Latin auxiliary verbs; the Latin morphemes cannot be explained on the basis of Italian.)
Romance is also the locus of one of Harper’s most telling errors of fact. He argues (correctly) that it would be strange if a whole ‘raft’ of identical grammatical changes were to occur independently in languages which are descended from a common ancestor but which are not currently in contact. Under such circumstances, some identical and numerous similar changes would actually be expected, thanks to shared structural pressures among the related languages; but one would not expect globally identical changes. Harper uses this point to attack the standard model of Romance. But in fact most of the features that distinguish early Romance from Classical Latin were already found in Vulgar Latin, among them the reduction of the case system and the collapse of the neuter gender; there is no mystery here.
See Harper’s The History of Britain Revealed: The Shocking Truth About the English Language, 2nd edn, London, 2007, etc.). For more comments on Harper’s work, see Mark Newbrook and Sarah Thomason, Review of Harper, M.J., The History Of England Revealed (2002), The Skeptical Intelligencer, 7 (2005), pp. 34-6; see also Mark Newbrook and Sarah Thomason, Comments on Harper’s reply to Review of Harper, M.J. (2002), The Skeptical
Intelligencer, 8 (2005/2006), pp. 38-9.
More next time (when pos)!
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