Svmer iʃ icumen in

Some people decry any change to language as the first step on a slippery slope which will end with us communicating in incoherent grunts. But language has always changed, and always will. We can easily test this in English by looking at written sources across more than a thousand years. My example for this post doesn’t date that far back, merely approximately 750 years.

One of the choirs I sing in is presenting a concert based on the theme of summer. One item is the old song Sumer is icumen in, which dates from before 1264, which is when the manuscript it is preserved in was copied. It is recognisable as English, but obviously a lot has changed since then. The original words are: 

Svmer iʃ icumen in
Lhude ʃing cuccu
Groweþ ʃed and bloweþ med
and ʃpringþ þe wde nu

Sing cuccu
Awe bleteþ after lomb
lhouþ after calue cu
Bulluc ʃterteþ bucke uerteþ
murie ʃing cuccu

Cuccu cuccu
Wel ʃingeʃ þu cuccu
ne ʃwik þu nauer nu

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What can I remember?

At my first English language college in Australia (approximately 10 years ago) the classes joined together for the last lesson on Fridays and watched a movie. There was meant to be some educational value but I was sometimes a bit worried about choices of the colleague who usually chose the movie.

One such movie was Bad Boys, starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith. There is genuine linguistic point in the use of African American Vernacular English, but that probably would have been lost on the students. At one point the two police seek information from a reluctant informer. I always remembered him saying “I don’t know everything about everything, but I do know some things about some things”. I was going to use that as a tagline for this blog, but didn’t want to quote anything I wasn’t 100% sure of. 

Recently, I thought to look at Wikiquote’s page for the movie, which records him as saying “I don’t know everything. I only know a little bit”. So there goes that one.

At one choir camp – if my fragment of a memory serves me correctly, in 1991 – we sang a choral piece which included the words “inextricably rooted”, which has an unfortunate double meaning for a speaker of Australian English, in which root can mean to engage in sexual intercourse (with) or damage or destroy, and rooted has related meanings. I thought “Surely that’s got to be somewhere on the internet”. Apparently not. There are occurrences of “inextricably rooted”, but seemingly none related to poetry or choral music. But the fact that the internet doesn’t record something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

So am I misremembering or not? It is a simple matter to find the first example – find the DVD in and shop, or the movie online, and skip to that point. To find the second example, I don’t have to search every piece of choral music – I’m sure that the poem was secular and that the composer was a 20th century American. If I am misremembering, then of course I will never find it, but I might find something very similar to it.

I mentioned “inextricably rooted” briefly in a major international linguistics forum, and no-one has said “Oh, that’s [this poem] by [that poet]”.

Carmen as she is sung

Some years ago, before the internet, there circulated by various means an “English-as-she-is-spoke” synopsis of the opera Carmen, purporting to have come from an opera house in Italy. One version now on the internet runs:

Act 1. Carmen is a cigar-makeress from a tabago factory who loves with Don Jose of the mounting guard. Carmen takes a flower from her corsets and lances it to Don Jose (Duet: ‘Talk me of my mother’). There is a noise inside the tabago factory and the revolting cigar-makeresses burst into the stage. Carmen is arrested and Don Jose is ordered to mounting guard her but Carmen subduces him and he lets her escape.

Act 2. The Tavern. Carmen, Frasquito, Mercedes, Zuniga, Morales. Carmen’s aria (‘The sistrums are tinkling’). Enter Escamillio, a balls-fighter. Enter two smuglers (Duet: ‘We have in mind a business’) but Carmen refuses to penetrate because Don Jose has liberated her from prison. He just now arrives (Aria: ‘Stop, here who comes!’) but hear are the bugles singing his retreat. Don Jose will leave and draws his sword. Called by Carmen shrieks the two smuglers interfere with her but Don Jose is bound to dessert, he will follow into them (final chorus: ‘Opening sky wandering life’).

Act 3. A roky landscape, the smuglers shelter. Carmen sees her death in cards and Don Jose makes a date with Carmen for the next balls fight.

Act 4. A place in Seville. Procession of balls-fighters, the roaring of the balls is heard in the arena. Escamillio enters (Aria and chorus: ‘Toreador, toreador, all hail the balls of a Toreador’). Enter Don Jose (Aria: ‘I do not threaten, I besooch you’) but Carmen repels him wants to join with Escamillio now chaired by the crowd. Don Jose stabbs her (Aria: ‘Oh rupture, rupture, you may arrest me, I did kill her’) he sings ‘Oh my beautiful Carmen, my subductive Carmen.’

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Carmen and James Taylor

One of the choirs I sing in sang two concerts with another community choir – last week on our turf and this week on theirs. Our choir sang excerpts from Carmen, which we will be singing in a concert performance later this year. Our conductor plugged the concert several times. After the concert, a man asked me “Is the opera in English?”. I said “No, it’s all in French”. He said “Oh, I don’t understand French”. (Neither does most of the choir, but that doesn’t stop us singing it.) I said “There’ll be a good explanation in the program, and you can find information on the internet”. He asked “What’s it about, basically?”. I thought for a moment then said “Boy meets girl. Girl meets other boy. Boy fights other boy. Boy kills girl.” He said “I know that story”.

Most of the other choir and some of mine had dinner at a local pub. One of the other choir’s singers said to me “You look like James Taylor”. I said “Oh” because no-one has said that before. Then I thought she said “And you sing like him too”, so I said “Oh thank you”. (I wasn’t sure how she’d heard me closely enough to think that.) She said “I said ‘Can you sing like him too?’”. I said “I don’t know”. And I may never know.

^ James Taylor or me

^ or maybe I look like this!

Words from paradise

One of the choirs I sing in is rehearsing a work consisting of five movements each setting one word from the Bible. The words – holy, hallelujah, selah, hosanna and amen – are from Germanic, Hebrew, Greek and/or Latin, and are now different degrees of ‘English’.

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Country, country

Today is Saint David’s Day. He was an early Welsh bishop and is the patron saint of Wales. No doubt many renditions of Mae hen wlad fy nhadau will be rendered from Cardiff to Holyhead. I am not an expert in Welsh, so I will keep this to my own experience.

When I was young, one of my piano tutor books had many songs from many countries, including this one. I remember that the title was given as O land of my fathers and the words entirely in English. The first line was O land of my fathers, O land dear to me, but I can’t remember enough of the rest of it to attempt to reproduce it, and the internet doesn’t seem to have it.

The first two words of the chorus were Great land. I now know that the original is Gwlad, gwlad, meaning country, countryside, nation.

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“Let us all Thy grace receive”

If there’s anything worse than a linguistic rabbit hole, it’s a theological rabbit hole.

At choir practice on Thursday night, we rehearsed an anthem on the famous hymn Love divine, all loves excelling by Charles Wesley. For the first time, I noticed the ambiguity in the line:

Let us all Thy grace receive.

Is that:

(Let) (us all) (Thy grace) (receive)


(Let) (us) (all Thy grace) (receive)


Linguistically, there’s no way to decide in this case. Both are grammatical and usual/natural. In both, the word all can be omitted, perhaps with a change of emphasis but not of basic meaning. To the extent that I’d ever thought about it, I had always assumed the first reading.

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