Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mere archaisms, or a mere of archaisms?

I originally posted this back in February of 2014, but have recently added a bunch of items to it, and, also inspired by John McWhorter's recent article on the subtle difficulties of Shakespeare, am reposting it today.


A while back, I had my daughter translate into modern English a text that included passages like these:

There Beowulf faced Grendel’s mother, wolf-of-the-deep, mere-wife monstrous. His good blade he swung for a blow. On her head sang its war-song wild; but useless was sword against charms of the she-one.  
He cast it aside, and trusted once more to his hand-grip. With grisly grasp Grendel’s mother grappled with Beowulf, till spent with the struggle, the fighter on foot, strongest of warriors, stumbled. The water-wife hurled herself on him; her dagger drew, broad and bright-edged. So had life ended for Beowulf, had not Holy God, the Wise Lord, held sway over the victory, awarding it aright.
These florid archaisms come from the From The Tower Window volume of My Book House, a series for children edited back in the 1920s by Olive Beaupré Miller.

I first encountered this series a few years ago when my parents were downsizing, and I suddenly found myself sorting through my father’s books from childhood. Chock full of folktales, fairy tales, classic tales, poetry, and history, the My Book House books struck me as Core Knowledge Incarnate. In other words, perfect for home school.

Then, when I looked beyond the tables of contents to those florid archaisms, I saw another pedagogical plus. However over-the-top the prose can be, it provides an exercise in close reading that my daughter was getting nowhere else. You can’t just skim through this stuff and snatch up a few key phrases; you really have to work to extract the full meaning.

Increasingly, indeed, old-fashioned English—whether actual or concocted—is like a foreign language to K12 students. Their reading assignments are increasingly contemporary and “relevant”—or accompanied by modern, “no-fear” translations. And their spare time goes increasingly to extracurriculars and to screen-based media rather than to 19th century Victorian novels and performances of Twelfth Night. Overall, one finds ever fewer archaisms in the books on desks and bedside tables, and one hears ever fewer of them (as memorized verses and adages) from the mouths of elders. The cycle, set in motion at least a generation ago, continues.

And so there are a whole host of features of older English that kids simply haven’t encountered, from the syntactic inversions (“On her head sang its war-song wild”) and appositive-heavy complexity (“till spent with the struggle, the fighter on foot, strongest of warriors, stumbled”), to the sometimes subtle differences in vocabulary (“mere-wife” doesn’t mean “mere wife”!).

Mindful of what kids are no longer picking up on their own, I’ve been compiling a list of archaisms. Here are a few:


1. Inversions: frequent inversion of subject and verb; adjectives sometimes placed after the nouns they modify (“On her head sang its war-song wild”).

2. Extraposition of nonrestrictive relative clauses. (From the Jungle Book: “My lair is empty that was full when this moon was new”; from Wolfert Webber by Washington Irving: "He must have a tug with the devil who gets it.")

3. Conditionals and auxiliary:

a. “had” for “would have” (“So had life ended for Beowulf”; "It had been easier for him, had he…"); "were" for "would be" ("So were his fortunes over,  had not …").

b. inverted auxiliary in place of "if": "Could they have looked forward they would have been consoled to see that [their efforts weren't in vain.]"

c.  inverted auxiliary in place of "if" even in sentences that don't already have an auxiliary and "do" must be inserted: "did they know my unhallowed acts, and the crimes which had their source in me" for "if they knew my unhallowed acts…".

d. auxiliary "be" rather than "have" in verbs of coming and going--as in French and German ("he was come").

e. "would" for "would like to" ("I would speak with you").

4. Use of "should" in place of "would," whether for conditional sentences like "If I had known, I should have behaved differently," or for past future, as in "It was unlikely that he should win." Similarly, "must" for "would" in conditional sentences ("If he had at all cared about me, we must have met long, long ago.")

5. Use of "should have" in place of "had" in past-perfective constructions: "As soon as the Trojans should have left…"

6. Relative clauses with "such... as": "if they visited such sick people as refused to call in a confessor."

7. Purpose clauses: “that” instead of “so that” (“Let us die that we may live”)

8. "Never/not X but that Y" for "Never/not X that... not Y" ("Never ere now was there a tourney, but that he had the victory" [for "Never before was there a tourney that he didn't win."] "not to remove statues but what he might discover in specific excavation" [Lord Elgin's promise]).

9. Proposition X followed by "so much had" plus Proposition  Y ("He had nothing left, so much had he squandered away" -> "He squandered so much away that he had nothing left."

10. The possibility of "dative" pronouns following the direct object: "give it me."

11. Less frequent use of reflexive pronouns: "Sir Lancelot made him ready."

12. Variants in which a verb takes the prefix be- and becomes reflexive: "She thought of doing that" --> "She bethought herself of doing that"; "He took to bed"-->"He betook himself to bed."

13. Underuse of the -ly ending for adverbs: "he was sore dismayed."

14. Splitting of "so as to": "it was so arranged as to …"

15. Contractions: "'tis" rather than "it's"; "not" less frequently contracted ("Did not he say that he was coming?"/"Did he not say he was coming?" "Is not my father dead?"/"Is my father not dead?").

16. Less frequent use of "do" in negations and questions: "I knew not" instead of "I didn't know"; "Have you any money?" instead of "Do you have any money?" (where possessive "have" behaves like auxiliary "have").

17. (Related to 15): negative element later in the sentence than what we're used to: "I saw him not at all/hardly at all." (More like what we see in modern French).


Rampant use of litotes (double negatives used as understatement): "not a few" meaning "quite a lot;" "not dismayed" meaning "quite happy."


A tendency towards punctuation that we would read as interrupting the flow:

Comma before restrictive relative clause: "A piece of music, that is dear to my heart."

Occasional commas between subject and verb (when subjects are long and heavily modified).

Greater use of semi-colon, rather than comma, in lists of relatively short noun phrases.


I’m guessing that most kids still know about “thou” and “thy,” but how many of them know other common archaisms like “whence” and “thence”? Or “bid”/“bade”? Or that “must” was once used, not just for present tense “have to"/"is certain to" but for past tense “had to”/"was certain to" and past future "would have to"/"would be certain to" or future "will surely do x" ("They concluded that he must speedily be destroyed; "It's clear that he must die")

Adding to the confusion are all those “false friends” whose meanings have subtly shifted or narrowed in ways that may lead today’s novice reader astray. Among many, many others, these include “fair” for pretty or nice;  “weeds” for clothes; "art" for "skill"; "dull" for stupid; "suppose" for "assume" ("I supposed he wouldn't be at home"); "society" for company or socializing; "intercourse" for social interaction; "interview" for conversation; “might” for power; "check" for limit; "suffer" for allow; “fix” for sabotage (as in “Pelops bribed the charioteer to fix the chariot”); "discover" for find ("My father is going to London to try to discover her"; "discover" for reveal ("she discovered herself"); "condescension" as a good thing (as when a higher status person is kind to a lower status person); "late" for recent; “host” for army; "person" for personality; "particulars" for details; "agree with" or "answer to" for match/jibe with; "answer for" for serve as/work as; "answerable" for responsible; "according to" for depending on; "sensible of" for aware of; "even" for just ("even so"); "object" for goal; “closet” for private rooms; "want" for need, or be lacking in ("He does not want abilities"); "in a body" for as a group; "bring to terms" for force to surrender and agree to terms; and, most recently, "gay" for happy.

The most insidious of these are the ones whose meaning shifts are subtle enough that it’s not so obvious from context that today's meaning doesn’t work: “know” for recognize; "careless" for carefree or indifferent; “miss” for notice that something is missing; “meet” for "meet up"(get together with) or “bumped into."

Additional subtle differences include greater use of "well" for "good"; "It would be well for...." And use of "false"/"untrue" for deceptive or disloyal.

At the other end of the spectrum there’s “mere” for lake—a false friendship that is purely incidental.

Even now things are a-changin’: “before” is narrowing into a purely temporal adverb, losing its locative sense of “in front of;" while "within" has retained its locative sense ("inside of"), "without" no longer as "outside of" as one if its meaning.

Other temporal adverbials no longer exist: “of an evening,” as recently as Dickens’ day, meant “in the evenings.”

Another complication are the pronouns “I” and “you,” which subservient speakers often eschewed in favor of “your servant” (for “I”) and “my lord” (for “you”). Thus we have Judah, subservient to Joseph (but not his servant), saying to him (whom he doesn’t recognize as his brother) “May it please my lord, let your servant have a word privately with my lord. Do not be angry with your servant…”

As for third person pronouns (“he” and “she”), these are often avoided, at least in the more florid of archaic prose, in favor of epithets like “the fighter on foot” for he, Beowulf, and “the water-wife” for she, Grendel’s mother.

Then there's the use (e.g., in Jane Austen and George Eliott) of "my" where we'd say "our," as when one of the Bennett sisters, speaking to another one, refers to "my aunt" or "my father."

For naïve readers, already derailed by all that unfamiliar syntax, all that syntactic complexity, and all those false friends, context may be too confusing to provide antecedents for “your servant” or “the water-wife,” and they may instead assume that additional characters have appeared out of nowhere. Bafflement snowballs.

Decreasingly confident in their ability to make any sense of it all, they may start tuning out, losing the presence of mind necessary to decode even rather obvious idioms in passages like:
Beowulf bade be fitted by a good sea-goer that fare over the swan road, over the sea streets, Hrothgar to help in his horror.
The result is that, to most students today, this kind of archaic prose really is a foreign language.

And this brings me to one additional handicap that these kids face if and when they ever encounter older texts: their foreign language instruction, or lack thereof. As I’ve noted earlier, there has been a serious decline in foreign language grammar instruction and in text translation exercises.

In short, not only do today’s students lack the longitudinal, incidental exposure to archaisms that would make these texts more accessible; they also increasingly lack the tools necessary to tackle them as the foreign texts they otherwise become.


Auntie Ann said...

I would love a list of the books that kids used to read 100 years ago. My brother, unhappy with the quality of modern early readers, used the McGuffy Readers with his daughter.

momod4 said...

I recently saw that The Little Colonel books (by Annie Fellowes Johnson), which were out of print for a number of decades, have been re-issued in paperback. I don't know if they has been changed from the originals, however - to conform to present-day views. They originally date from the late 1800s, and are set in the South just after the Civil War. They would appeal more to girls than boys, I think, as would Maud Hart Lovelace's books; Betsy and Tacy, Heaven to Betsy etc. - set in Mankato, MN in the early 1900s. Little Lord Fauntleroy is another oldie, set in NY-England in the 19th century.

Jeff Boulier said...

Auntie Ann -- I don't have that information, but if you search by subject at the Gutenberg Project website, you can choose to order by downloads to see what older books are popular now. Example:

As a Gutenberg aficionado I admit to one major problem with the recommendation above: they're subject classification system isn't very good, e.g. fewer than half their entries even have subjects.

Of course, once you start reading them, you'll notice that in many books the fictional children/young adults mention other, real, books they've read -- presumably ones popular at the time. Also frequently in the back pages are blurbs for other books the publisher hoped would have interested you, had you purchased the book in 1912, and frequently the best of these have also been uploaded (or are otherwise available somewhere).

ChemProf said...

The Oz books, by L. Frank Baum, plus a few of his others like The Sea Fairies, would be good options for a child who likes fantasy. They were written in the early 1900's, and we just ran into bid/bade today, reading The Wizard of Oz.

Anonymous said...

Apart from books, certain kinds of folk music have a lot of the language you describe. In my case, my interest is in Celtic music.

I've frequently heard this song at festivals and on recordings ...

... with a "gay gold ring" that has nothing to do with homosexuality.

Or this one ...

... has "bade", inversions ("to a city fair rode I"), and other things ("fearless men but few", "the world did gaze, in deep amaze")

And it's hardly ancient, since it refers to historical events less than a century past.

Anonymous said...

I discovered the Little Colonel books because The Little Colonel's House Party was mentioned in Carney's House Party (one of the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace).

There's also Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Secret Garden, Little Women, Pollyanna, the Anne of Green Gables - and for boys, the Mark Twain works, Swiss Family Robinson, Kidnapped, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe etc. My kids all like the original D'Aulaire's Greek Myths and Aesop's Fables - also La Fontaine's fables.