‘The court of King Caractacus’

Several months ago I posted about ‘cumulative songs’, focusing on I have a song to sing-o, by Gilbert and Sullivan. One of the songs I mentioned was The court of King Caractacus, by the now-disgraced singer/songwriter/entertainer/artist Rolf Harris. For no apparent reason, I got thinking about this a few days ago.

Harris builds a noun phrase of almost unsustainable length, showing many of the features of English noun phrases, but by doing it over the course of four verses, we have no difficulty in following it.

King Caractacus
the court of King Caractacus
the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
the fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus
some pictures of the fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the britches of the boys who put the powder on the noses on the faces of the ladies of the harem of the court of King Caractacus

‘A phrase normally consists of a head, alone or accompanied by one or more modifiers’ (Huddleston & Pullum, 22). A noun can be modified by determiners, pre-modifiers and post-modifiers. The first four determiners are a/an, the, some and (-) (also called the ‘zero article’).  the is the ‘definite article’, which ‘indicates that the head of the NP is considered SUFFICIENT IN THE CONTEXT TO IDENTIFY THE REFERENT’ (91, they use small caps); it’s not just that Harris knows which ladies etc he’s talking about, he also expects you know know as well. the can be used with singular countable nouns (the courtthe harem), plural countable nouns (the ladies, the faces, the noses, the boys, the britches, the stitches, the witches) and uncountable nouns (the powder). Some is often used with plural countable nouns or uncountable nouns analogously to a with singular countable nouns (if you want to take a picture ~ if you want to take some pictures; we could say if you want to take pictures).

Pre-modifiers are usually adjectives or nouns. If there are pre-modifiers, the use or non-use of an article follows the same rules as if there wasn’t. If we can say the stitches and the witches, then we can say the scintillating stitches and the fascinating witches. We can refer to Caractacus because it is a proper noun (someone’s name), so we can refer to King Caractacus. King is a noun modifier, which is used without an article of its own: while we would refer to the king, we must refer to King Caractacus.

Post-modifiers can be a prepositional phrase, which is a preposition typically followed by a noun phrase of its own (the noses on the faces, the powder on the noses, the stitches in the britches). The noun phrase can have modifiers of its own – these three have only the. (Two points: H&P make a distinction between complements and post-head modifiers, but in this brief and less formal discussion, I won’t; they and several other influential modern grammars allow prepositions to be followed by other elements, but a prepositional phrase is typically followed by a noun phrase).

of is a preposition, but an of-phrase has become grammaticised – that is, it plays a purely grammatical function. The same function can be expressed with a genitive determiner (’s or s’): the court of King Caractacus ~ King Caractacus’s court (some style guides would omit the final s), the harem of the court ~ the court’s harem etc. Other prepositional phrases can’t be re-expressed in this way. The other of-phrases in the song are: the ladies of the harem, the faces of the ladies, the britches of the boys, some pictures of the witches. The last one is very different in scope. The court belongs to King Caractacus, the harem belongs to the court etc, but the pictures don’t belong to the witches; they belong to you (or will, if you take some – oh, you’re too late, they’ve just passed by).

A relative clause is a relative pronoun followed by a clause: the boys who put the powder on the noses and the witches who put the stitches in the britches. These are both integrated relative clauses: they define or specify which boys and which witches we are talking about.

Because we can talk about the court of King Caractacus or King Caractacus’s court, then theoretically, by re-expressing each of as NP’s or NPs’, it is possible to talk about (deep breath)

the fascinating witches who put the scintillating stitches in the boys who put the powder on the noses on King Caractacus’s court’s harem’s ladies’ faces’ britches’ pictures

but in real life we wouldn’t – both speaker and listener (or writer and reader) are going to lose track long before then. I was able to write that because I have a word processor and took it step by step.

But there’s more! A noun phrase must combine with a verb and maybe other elements to form a clause. In the first four verses, the ever-expanding noun phrase is the subject of the main (indeed only) clause: The ladies … were just passing by, The noses … were just passing by, The boys … were just passing by, The witches … were just passing by. But in the truncated fifth verse, it is somewhere completely different, doing something completely different: it is the direct object of a catenative verb construction in a conditional adjunct to the main clause. (Or something like that. My head hurts, too.)

Lyrics ©Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, used under s 40 of the Copyright Act 1968

Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K Pullum, A student’s introduction to English grammar, Cambridge University Press, 2005

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3 thoughts on “‘The court of King Caractacus’

  1. I know why – it’s vaguely related to your previous post about “my brother-in-law’s aunt” or “the aunt of my brother-in-law”.

    On a related note (pun unintended), the original word-for-word translation from Hebrew is something like “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. Translators freely use either that or shorten it to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”… but I have yet to come across a translation which talks about “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’s God”.

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    • I’d never consciously thought about this. I suspect that ‘the X of Y’ is more formal than ‘Y’s X’, but I can’t think of anything I’ve ever read that actually says so. The bible seems to be full of ‘the X of Y’: the law of Moses, the psalms of David, the wisdom of Solomon, the good news of Jesus Christ. Hymnwriters seem to have more variation, if only to fit the meter. I can think of ‘At the name of Jesus’ and ‘All hail the power of Jesu’s name’.

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    • Of the 52 versions of Matt 22:32 on Bible Gateway, 51 use ‘of’ in some form. The only one that doesn’t is the Contemporary English Version, which has ‘I am the God worshiped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’. This is clearly a reinterpretation of the Greek text, which is ‘egō eimi ho theos Abraam kai ho theos Isaak kai ho theos Iakōb’.

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