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McWhorter, J. PhD Linguistics (Stanford). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (2009).

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  There is ample scholarly work on how going to went from referring to locomotion to becoming a future tense marker, complete with statistical analysis, tables, and so

p. 55

on. It’s great stuff, and it’s what a scholar of language change is trained in.
  However, charting how Celtic languages impacted English involves different strategies. It requires being a different brand of linguist. Often, that brand is language contact specialist. That person has an eye on what sorts of features are common around the world and what sorts are not, is obsessed with not just one language family but with several, and has a native taste for history as well as linguistics. Such linguists are less tickled by things that sprung up in a language by themselves than by things that languages did to one another.
  As such, it’s as if scholars of The History of English are engaged in a lusty game of Monopoly when adherents of the Celtic idea bust into the room asking who wants to play a game of Clue. Or, some people are building things with an Erector set and someone pops in with a little car made of Legos. To the traditional specialist on how English got from Beowulf to The Economist, drawing parallels between English and some other language is just Not What They Do, especially not at any length. That feeling is understandable, but the problem is that the language contact specialist’s analysis, in this case, squares with logic in a way that the same-old same-old analysis simply does not.

The emboldened sentences imply that this brand of historical linguistics ('language contact specialist') is rare. But why?

McWhorter insinuates that the traditional linguists of English's history don't operate under this brand. But isn't it irresponsible for a linguist who studies English's history to neglect other language families and 'things that languages did to one another'?

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    Linguistics is a rich field and it might not be possible to be an expert both in theory and patterns of sound change and in the theory and history of language contact. One of my profs' career was based, as far as I could tell, on certain syntactic features of Old French; she naturally knew enough about related topics to discuss them and even teach introductory undergrad courses, but probably not to publish on them. No doubt you have to know some of the related topics to ground your research but not enough to specialize... There's also the diachronic/synchronic divide. Just my two cents. – Luke Sawczak Jul 3 '18 at 4:11
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Irresponsible? Sure. But also inevitable. After all,

  • Why did the tree model of language affiliation prevail over the wave model?
  • Why do we know more about the history of Cretan Greek than Pontic Greek?
  • Why do cross-disciplinary studies in general promise much and deliver little?

Because studying two things in depth, and how those two things have interacted, is much harder than studying one thing in depth. Treating the history of English as a single flow, and studying that, is far less work than studying the history and structure of English in depth, studying the history and structure of Welsh in depth, and working out how they might have interacted. And those interacts are going to be far messier and multicausal than the language-internal interactions that an English-only specialist is able to track.

That's not about lack of diligence (or at least, not just about lack of diligence); that's about what it is tractable for a single scholar to study. Which is as much cultural as anything: the humanities have not had a strong model of scholarly collaboration, let alone team collaboration such as is seen in the positive sciences, and which this kind of problem requires.

That's why the wave theory is acknowledged in theory and not in practice. We can grok lineal descent as readers, and we can construct lineal descent as historical linguists. The panspermia of the wave theory is a closer model to reality, and it's orders of magnitude harder to deal with. (And no smirking from the scientists. They're the ones who came up with the frictionless plane, and can't cope with the three-body problem. For exactly the same reason.)

Add that the more obscure or removed the donor language is from the concerns of the target language specialist, and the more intimate the contact has been, the harder that work is going to be. If you're writing a history of Cretan Greek, you need to be across Venetian Italian and Turkish as donor languages, and you need only bother with lexicon. It's not that hard. If you're writing a history of Pontic Greek, you need to be across a bunch of Caucasian languages as well as Turkish, and those Caucasian languages are going to be far less well documented than Turkish (and they won't be in Latin script). And you're looking at language influence not just in lexicon, but morphology and syntax and semantics as well. It's simply a much bigger task, and unsurprisingly, the historical linguistics of Pontic has lagged as a result.

The kind of scholarly teamwork that this kind of investigation requires has been happening for the last couple of decades; and anecdotally, linguists are strongly encouraged by grant authorities to pursue that kind of team investigation, because it's the model from the positive sciences that those authorities are more comfortable funding.

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    Well there is Minoan substrate, but to your point, the incentives are such that nobody will be punished for ignoring it. – Adam Bittlingmayer Jul 3 '18 at 12:05
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    Ach du lieber, Minoan substrate even in Ancient Cretan—let alone Modern—would be quite the find. Of course, as with any unattested substrate, it would also be unprovable... – Nick Nicholas Jul 3 '18 at 12:29
  • This is a language site so I have to ask... "you need to be across Venetian Italian and Turkish " _to be across is an idiom I've never heard before though I have a vague idea what is intended. But...where does that come from? Is it BrE? I it the same as 'across' = 'aware of' – Mitch Jul 4 '18 at 0:11
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    Australian and NZ: english.stackexchange.com/questions/122379/…. Not just "aware of" but "very familiar with". And I did not know it was a regionalism until today! – Nick Nicholas Jul 4 '18 at 0:42

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