The English Language is the Brady Bunch on Steroids


The premise behind the television show, The Brady Bunch, which aired in the late 60s, early 70s, was the blending of two already-large families into something bigger, zanier, more riddled with idiosyncrasies.

Mike Brady’s got his boys, Carol’s got her girls, and then there’s Alice, the housekeeper.  Nine in all, sharing the same roof, and forging a life together, forming a “Bunch.”

As the title of this post would indicate, I propose that the English language can be likened to the Brady Bunch, but to the power of ten.  The Brady Bunch on steroids, if you will.

All languages have genealogies—parent languages from which they descend.  Some of those genealogies are relatively linear (say, European languages that have evolved from Latin).  Others are very obscure in their origins (the Basque language chief among these).  And then we have English, which can be seen as the ultimate “blended family.”

This feature of English is, of course, a historical-geographic legacy.  I’m including a nifty timeline here, borrowed from Daniel M. Short’s “History of English,” which does a good job of showing the various family members of our “Bunch.”

We have Mike Brady, this lonely Celtic man.  Carol, an agressive Roman woman, invades his house and basically takes over, driving him into a corner.  Eventually, the in-laws (or should I say, the outlaws?) show up: the Angles, the Saxons, the Jutes, the Danes, the Frisians.  These are people groups, but these are also languages—northern European languages spoken by tribes that are basically at each others’ throats 24/7/365, decade after decade.

Just when things seem like they’re starting to get a little quieter around the Brady household—a hybridized language is emerging and people are starting to understand one another again—a new houseguest arrives.  It’s not Alice, there to clean things up.  It’s the Vikings, who only intended to stay around long enough to swipe the silverware.

As it turned out, they thought the Brady House was a pretty nice place, and settled down, speaking strangely for a while, until they fit right in.  Things were peachy.

So peachy, in fact, that a neighbour named Guillaume (or William, if you prefer), decided that he wanted to move in as well, and his whole family with him.  (Interestingly, before he succeeded in conquering the Brady Household, he was better known as Guillaume the Bastard.  It’s true, you can look it up.)  He took over the house and renamed it “Chez Brady.”

It’s because of these sudden move-ins that English, as it evolved over the next several hundred years, took on such a unique form.  We have Anglo-Saxon words like “honey” and “nest” and “udder.”  We have Old Norse words like “axle” and “gosling” and “slaughter.”  We have Norman words like “beef” and “liberty” and “voice.”

I find it very interesting that, during this period of the Brady House, there was an awkward Anglo-Norman bilingualism (or trilingualism if you think of it as an Anglo-Saxon-Norman language) that existed at different levels of the family.  Despite the fact that all the important stuff that was going on in the house was being written down in Norman French, most of the official records back where Guillaume had come from were being written in Latin—the language of the Church.  (Don’t get me wrong—the Bradys went to church, too.  They just wrote a heck of a lot of stuff in Norman French.)

This bilingualism resulted in some strange dichotomies at the time, and many that still linger today.  For example, we wouldn’t say that we want to serve “cow” or “pig” for dinner.  We would say “beef” or “pork.”  As it turns out, “cow” and “pig” are the Anglo-Saxon (common and conquered) words, and “beef” (boeuf) and “pork” (porc) are the Norman (aristocratic and conquering) words.  Some store owners have taken it a step farther by marketing goat meat as “chevron” (from the French chevre).

It’s not only nouns that show this tendency.  Take, for example, the verb “to get.”  I might say, “I got my BA at the University of —.”  But we probably wouldn’t say that on a resume.  More likely, we would try to sound a little more sophisticated: “I obtained my BA from…”  “To get” (especially its extremely archaic conjugate of “gotten”) is an activity for the common man; “to obtain” is something fit for a nobleman.

(See a very interesting list here that compares English words with dual Norman French and Anglo-Saxon variants.)

Another bizarre artefact of the Brady Bunching can be seen in the way we capitalize in English.  Whereas German capitalizes all nouns (resulting in sentence such as, “When the Boy went to the Window, the Fly made a buzzing Sound”), French is pretty minimalist in this regard.  In fact, in French, you don’t even capitalize “French” (on dirait « la langue française »).  In English, we developed a sometimes-uncomfortable compromise, capitalizing what we call “proper” nouns, maybe harkening back to this idea that there are things we refer to in the common language, and things we refer to in the language of the aristocracy.

But the greatest thing about the language of the Brady Bunch is that it never really stopped growing.  Take a look at the far-right portion of the timeline above.  Languages like Arabic, Turkish, Malay, Japanese, and Chinese have all found bedrooms in the House.  I’ll talk about three examples in particular.

The word “robot” first appeared in a work by Karel Čapek, a Czech playwright and author.  It was used to describe factory-made artificial people, and it caught on.  (Incidentally, the word “capek” means “tired” in Indonesian, which is another Brady Bunchesque language—perhaps the most extreme example of a lingua franca, or trade language, that I know of.)

Most of us, going out for sushi, wouldn’t blink to see “tempura” on the menu.  But where is the word from?  Is it Japanese?  It sure sounds like it.  But there is reason to believe that “tempura” comes either from the Portuguese word “tempero” (a spicy seasoning), or from “tempora” (which is connected to the Lenten period in which individuals eat fish and vegetables instead of meat).  Whatever the case, the idea here is that the word is likely not a Japanese one, per se, but originally came from somewhere else.  It’s since been adopted into English.

Another example appears in English not as a word, but as an expression.  In Chinese, the expression “好久不见” means, more or less, “Long time no see.”  Sound familiar?  Again, we aren’t 100% sure, but there’s a good chance that the expression came into the Brady House via Chinese.

The Internet has made all of this Familial exchange happen at an unprecedented rate.  No longer does someone actually need to come to Chez Brady to get in on the linguistic mashup.  Neither do the Bradys need to go abroad in a frenzy of imperialist zeal, encountering new languages in the process.  It all happens online.

Our language is in a constant process of transformation and assimilation.  And that, I feel, is the richness of English, the reason it is an undeniably living language.  Sure, it makes it hard to learn, hard to teach, and sometimes, hard to use.  But that’s half the fun.