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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At least he wasn’t sinning

A colleague mentioned something which reminded me of the bizarrest typos I’ve ever seen in a book. The book Tasteless Lists by Karl Shaw would probably be bizarre enough even without the occasional typo, and this item certainly would be, but the typo lifts it into a league of its own:

One of the world’s most tasteless stage acts was performed by the American Tommy Minnock, a variety artiste who plied his trade in Trenton, New Jersey, in the 1890s. Minnock allowed himself to be literally crucified onstage: while the nails were being driven into his hands and feet, he would entertain his audience by signing “After The Ball Is Over”.

(which I always thought was After The Ball Was Over).

Is this true (assuming that he was singing and not signing)? I have read enough paragraphs like this in enough books like this that I know from other sources are not true, and very many others which are highly doubtful, to be sceptical. But this one seems to be true. While there is very little on the internet about Minnock, the New York Times has a review of Ricky Jay’s Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, which includes an account of Minnock which is broadly consistent with the one in the book. (Google Books has a later version of the same book, which rewrites the paragraph and removes the typo. Spoilsports.)

The colleague mentioned that a church choir she sang in learned basic Auslan for a service for deaf people at their church. I didn’t want to say signing in the first sentence, so as not to give away the typo.  

Botany Bay

The topic of Botany Bay as a penal colony cropped up twice today. The first was at a service commemorating the 200th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of heritage church building in Sydney. The settlement/colonisation/invasion of Australia started in 1788, so no building in Australia is older than 231 years, and only a handful are older than 200 (a lot depends on definitions – some buildings were originally built then but have been extensively rebuilt since then).

Alongside some psalm anthems and a hymn of the time, we sang a rollicking song which I had not previously encountered, which exhorts young virgins, frolic and fair, to trip it away to Botany Bay to join the bold convicts, from whom they may chuse a man and attend procreation. Google shows that the poem was written in 1801, at which time the convict colony was a miserable place. It didn’t start improving until the arrival of Governor Macquarie in 1810. 

This evening my wife and I went to see the movie Downton Abbey, set in 1927. The servants of the household get their their noses out of joint at being pushed around by the servants of the King and Queen, who are visiting, so they plot to temporarily remove them from the situation. One of them mutters “We’ll be sent to Botany Bay”. Well, no, for two reasons. Firstly, the convict colony at Botany Bay lasted only 10 or so days before Governor Phillip discovered that Port Jackson/Sydney Harbour was far nicer, so only the convicts on the ships of the First Fleet were sent to Botany Bay. But the name stuck, either for the colony, alongside the official name, New South Wales, and as the destination for convicts. Secondly, transportation to New South Wales was abolished in 1850 (and to anywhere in Australia in 1868), so no-one would have been transported here in 1927. I think the character was being hyperbolic, anyway.

Coldplay = ice hockey?

One of the most important skills in learning anything, including a second language, is figuring out what’s important to know and what can be safely ignored. Students wanting to know is a good thing; I don’t want to discourage that. Maybe I’m just explaining it badly.

Yesterday’s lesson had a lot about pop music, and the activities and our extra discussions were full of singers and groups and songs and words and music. Today’s lesson included a story in which a young woman and young man met while a particular song was playing – “It’s by Coldplay. It’s called Yellow”. Coldplay and the song then play no further part in the story. They could have met while any other song was playing, or in total silence.

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“And then he kissed me”

The textbook illustrates indirect quotation with the song “And then he kissed me”, written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and originally and most famously sung by The Crystals. Direct and indirect quotation can be seen in the pair of lines:

So I whispered “I love you”
And he said that he loved me too

“I love you” are her actual words and are indicated by quotation marks. (Or they should be – they are in the textbook, but not on the website I copied the lyrics from rather than typing them from scratch.) Indirect quotations are typically introduced by the subordinator that, and (hardest for ESL learners) changes of person (usually pronouns) and verb tense. He actually said “I love you, too”. Because she is reporting his words, his I becomes her he and his you becomes her me. The verb tense typically moves back one “time” (sometimes referred to as backshift), in this case from present simple love to past simple loved. But this optional. If she is reporting his words soon after (for example to a friend the next day), she might keep present simple and say “And he said that he loves me too”. If she is reporting his words a long time later (for example to their grandchildren after his death), she would certainly backshift and say loved.

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eak, nouce and beaurocratic

When I’m not working, I don’t set out to find typos in what I read, but sometimes I just can’t not. I’m re-reading some old books before deciding whether to keep them or sell, give, donate or throw away (I can’t stand throwing away books!). One of these is the story of the British comedy team The Goons. In one chapter, there were three instances of one mis-spelled word and one of another, and I found a third while I was skimming through to find them before drafting this post.

Spike’s time spent eaking out unperformed scripts on his old typewriter would not go to waste.

‘Now most of those tapes lie gathering dust at the BBC. You’d think they would have the nouce to broadcast [them].’ (quoting Spike Milligan)

‘I’m not surprised at the way the BBC eak out an occasional Goon Show recording rather than broadcast a whole series on radio.’ (Milligan)

’Now a Goon Show is being eaked out for a miserable once-a-year airing on cassette. Blind, misguided, beaurocratic BBC.’ (Milligan)

This is a quality production, edited by a woman who used to be Milligan’s personal assistant. It’s easy to say “Haha, you made a mistake in a printed book”, but it’s more interesting to explore the linguistic issues behind them, and I don’t want to name and shame the editor and publisher. Eke and nous are very rare words, bureaucratic is moderately rare, and all three have very unusual spellings. Continue reading

I feel like writing more about adjectives

(Following on from the previous post about adjectives.)

Adjectives modify nouns, and can, in turn, be modified by adverbs and a number of other elements. These can go either before or after the adjective. Three common adverbs before an adjective are: very (no example in this song), so (so pretty/charming) and too (too much to eat). Some of these work better in some sentence patterns than others: My dress is very pretty, I am wearing a very pretty dress, My dress is so pretty!, *I am wearing a so pretty dress (>I am wearing such a pretty dress), My dress is too pretty!, *I am wearing a too pretty dress (>?I am wearing too pretty a dress).

Note that in I’m loved by a pretty wonderful boy, pretty is not an adjective, like it was in I feel pretty, and such a pretty dress!, but rather an adverb. ‘Extreme adjectives’ are particularly limited in which adverbs can go before them: ?He is very wonderful!, ?He is a very wonderful boy!, He is so wonderful!, *He is a so wonderful boy! (>He is such a wonderful boy!), He is too wonderful!, *He is a too wonderful boy! (>?He is too wonderful a boy!)

Some other adverbs go after the adjective: pretty enough. Continue reading

Describing adjectives

I feel pretty

Oh, so pretty

I feel pretty and witty and bright!

Maria feels pretty. And she tells us so many times. 

Pretty and witty and bright are adjectives, which qualify nouns or pronouns, often describing an attribute of a person, thing or place.

There is no consistent marking of adjectives in English. In other words, we can’t tell just by looking at it whether or not a word is an adjective. Many English adjectives end in -y, such as pretty and witty in the lines above. Others used later in the song are dizzy, sunny, fizzy and funny. Witty, sunny, fizzy and funny are derived from the nouns wit, sun, fizz and fun, but pretty and dizzy aren’t derived from pret or prett and diz or dizz. In those cases, the nouns are derived from the adjectives: prettiness and dizziness. We can also make wittiness, sunniness, fizziness and funniness, but these are awkward and far less used than wit, sun, fizz and fun.

But not all words ending in -y are adjectives: later in the song, Maria sings “And I pity any girl who isn’t me today”. Pity here is a verb, and can also be a noun (“It’s a pity that every girl isn’t me today”). The related adjectives are the sometimes confusing pitiful, pitiless, pitiable and piteous. (Pity can’t be an adjective because we can’t say I adjective (or I noun).

And, clearly, not all adjectives end in -y. Others in the song are: charming (n and v charm), alarming (n and v alarm), stunning (n and v stun); attractive (n attraction, v attract); wonderful (n and v wonder); advanced (n and v advance), refined (n refinement, v refine). –ive and –ful are common adjective endings. -ing and -ed are also verb endings: charming, alarming, stunning and entrancing are gerund-participles, and advanced and refined are past participles. Well-bred is also a past participle verb (an irregular one), but the relationship to the verb breed is less obvious: She is well-bred. She was well-bred by her parents. Her parents well-bred her. Her parents bred her well. All Puerto Rican parents breed all their children well. Continue reading

I want …

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This digitally edited photo shows Freddie Mercury, the former leader singer of the English rock band Queen, as a contestant on the tv quiz show Who wants to be a millionaire? The ‘question’ is ‘I want …’ and the ‘answers are ‘… it all’, ‘… to break free’, ‘… to ride my bicycle’ and ‘… to make a supersonic man out of you’ — lyrics from four Queen songs.

Every English (and possibly every language) verb comes with rules about what other elements must or can or mustn’t follow it, usually related to the meaning of the verb. The first meaning of want is that we want something: Freddie wants it. And once we want it, we can specify ‘how much of it?’ (all), and ‘when?’  (now). Another is that we want to do something: Freddie wants to break, to ride and to make. These last three verbs also come with their own rules about what other elements must or can or mustn’t follow them. We usually break something, but we can also break out, loose, away or free. We usually ride something or on or in something, but we can just ride (but usually something is implied: I walked and Freddie rode (his bicycle)). We usually make something, but we can also make sure or out.

A third pattern after want is that we want someone else to do something. I can’t recall that Queen provides an example, but Cheap Trick does.