I am reading John McWhorter’s "Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue". One thing called my attention in the book: he spends a great deal of effort trying to show how scholars have examined the history of English and yet failed to explain why certain features have appeared. He concentrates particularly on the arising of the do-support and the present progressive construction, two innovations not shared by any other Germanic language. I quote from the middle of p. 10:

  And yet specialists in the history of English sincerely believe that English started using do and -ing by itself, and that it is irrelevant, or virtually so, that Welsh and Cornish have the same features. You can page through countless books and articles on The History of English, and even on specifically the history of meaningless do or the -ing present, and find Celtic either not mentioned at all, actively dismissed, or, at best, mentioned in passing as a “a possible influence” (read: of no significant bearing upon the issue).

His point is, of course, that these constructions were introduced into English by the indigenous Celtic speakers, who lived alongside the Anglo-Saxons for centuries. My first reaction to his criticism was: "Yes, he is right! How could linguists have not seen this obvious causal relation?"

But every science has to clearly define its scope. And, perhaps, it is not part of the field of Historical Linguistics to try to explain phenomena, but merely to describe them, based on direct evidence (which is not the case in the Celtic influence issue). So, is the job of a historical linguist to explain why languages have developed this way or that? Or do they have to restrict themselves to describing only how languages develop over time?

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    I think explanation is essential, not only in historical linguistics but everywhere in science. Those superficial psychological research projects that show, e.g., how people reading poetry are more likely to prefer fowl over beef are not very interesting, at least not as interesting as explaining why exactly this is the case. Incidentally, I don't think you can separate how and why very clearly: what is the essential difference between the two? If you have some evidence to assume that Celtic influenced do-support, you should present it and explain your hypotheses.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 28, 2011 at 1:43
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    This is a normative question (should historical linguists explain things?) and a taxonomic question (if historical linguistics is descriptive, what do we call attempts to explain history?). Both come down to personal preference. I like things to be explained rather than well described mysteries and I'm equally happy to lump or split these categories of questions into one or two groups, it doesn't hinder my understanding as say, lumping physics and religion into a single taxonomic unit. Oct 28, 2011 at 14:52
  • You can find some auxiliary do in many variants of German, and in Yiddish which suggests it has been so for a long time. It is just not prescribed in the standard language. But those areas were mostly Celtic-speaking too at some point too. Jul 3, 2018 at 14:11

2 Answers 2


As Lyle Campbell writes in his intro textbook on Historical Linguistics (2004), until the 1970's the general view was that historical linguistics should describe rather than explain, cf. a quote from Lehmann 1962 that "a linguist establishes the facts of change, leaving its explanation to the anthropologist." Luckily, the situation has changed, and now "most current research is directed at revealing the factors which help to explain language change" (Campbell 2004, p. 313). See chapter 11 "Explaining linguistic change" for further study.

Practically all major textbooks on historical linguistics provide some explanation of sound, morphological, syntactic, semantic etc. change.



McWhorter's quote isn't inconsistent with the possibility that alternative explanations have been advanced by historical linguists regarding do-support. The fact that the Celtic hypothesis is "actively dismissed" indicates that linguists have most definitely "seen this" possible "causal relation" and have argued against it.

Going by your question title, I think you're misinterpreting McWhorter's claim when you say that scholars have "failed to explain why certain features have appeared in the language." McWhorter is responding to the dismissal of a particular explanation that he favors, not to the general absence of explanation in historical linguistics. I haven't read his book, but I've looked at his article (McWhorter 2009) and it's clear that there's been many explanations for do-support, but he happens to have objections to them -- just like how other scholars have objected to the Celtic hypothesis.

It bears mentioning that the journal issue that McWhorter's article above is published in -- a 2009 issue of English Language and Linguistics -- is a special issue entitled "Re-evaluating the Celtic hypothesis." So there are certainly linguists interested in this.

That said, there are some muddling factors when it comes to this particular language group. Van der Auwera and Genee 2002 surveys the field and identifies some meta issues:

Fourth, many an Anglicist would feel that the study of Celtic is not his/her business but rather that of the Celticist (cf. Dal, 1952: 107) or of the Indo- Europeanist (cf. Meid, 1990: 1000). Or Anglicists may feel that at least some of them should have a competence in Celtic languages, but the fact is that most of them simply do not.

Fifth, what further obstructs taking a Celtic hypothesis seriously is the myth of Anglo-Saxonism (see esp. German, 2000 and Tristram, 1999 but also Hickey, 1995: 103–5). This ideology starts from the unexamined premise that the English are of unmixed Germanic origin, that their history starts with the arrival of leaders like Hengest and Horsa and that the Celtic population they encountered was completely exterminated or driven away; from this it must follow that there was no contact between Early Celtic and Early English and there cannot therefore be any influence of Celtic on English. A related myth leads to the same denial of the importance of Celtic language and culture in Britain. It has recently been identified under the term Celtoscepticism, and may be seen as the other side of the coin called Anglosaxonism; it consists of the idea that the Celts as a people never really existed or formed a cultural unity, and could therefore of course never as a group have had any influence over other groups (Koch, 2001).

The authors also mention a more generic issue with research:

Finally, there is the ever-present trap of mono-causalism. This means that researchers who have already convinced themselves of the plausibility of one cause or explanation may find it hard to accept that there could be more than one cause or explanation. With respect to the specifics of do periphrasis, if one believes that periphrastic do goes back to causative do, this still should not stop one from investigating a Celtic hypothesis seriously as well (cf. Stein, 1990: 19).

  • I'm not misinterpreting. He is very explicit about that. For example, after commenting on the Viking impact on English: "When it comes to charting how English got to be the way it is now from what it was in Beowulf, the common consensus is all about describing rather than explaining." Oct 28, 2011 at 12:12
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    And yet he writes of Garrett 1998's habitual analysis of do-support: "One specialist tries that it all started with do being used to indicate that something is done on a regular basis [...] Yet the explanation is still a distinctly queer, Rube Goldberg turn of events." Again, McWhorter evaluates explanations and he deems them inadequate. There's a huge gap between unsatisfactory explanations and explanation not being a part of historical linguistics. (Also see Cerberus's comment to the question.)
    – Aerlinthe
    Oct 28, 2011 at 14:45

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