Who Told Me Was My Dad
Posted by Neal on January 15, 2011
Driving home from Doug and Adam’s piano lessons last night, I heard a fluffy piece on NPR about Elizabeth Hughes, an eight-year-old girl who was singing the national anthem at a hockey game (well, before the game, actually), when her mike cut out, and the entire crowd picked up from where her sound went out. Well, there were probably some people in there who were just mouthing it, but enough sang to bring the song to a rousing finish. Mee-chele Norris was interviewing Hughes, and asked her how she happened to be picked to sing at the event. Hughes answered:
Who told me about this was my Dad.
Wow! A fused relative with who! A fused relative construction is something that looks like an interrogative (in this case, who told me), but acts like a noun phrase (in this case, by serving as the subject of was my dad). Huddleston and Pullum call this kind of structure a fused relative in CGEL because, to use this example to illustrate, you can think of it as equivalent to a noun modified by a relative clause: the person who told me about this. But in what the girl actually said, the who standing in for the whole string the person who. We get fused relatives all the time with what; for example, That’s what I want, which you could defuse (as it were) into That’s the thing that I want. (This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudocleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.) Shoot, I even used a fused relative headed by what myself a couple of sentences ago. Did you see it?
Anyway, back to fused relatives with who. I’ll yield the floor to Geoff Pullum, who wrote about them on Language Log in December 2005 after hearing a barista ask, “Can I help who’s next?”:
In Rockport, Massachusetts, I observed another grammatical construction that might well have been thought extinct for many decades, but like the ivory-billed woodpecker and the supplementary relative that-clause, it seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment. I was waiting in line in a small coffee shop and I heard a young woman behind the counter call for the next customer by saying “Can I help who’s next?”. This wasn’t my first observation; I hear the phrase in Santa Cruz, California, too (and since first posting this I have heard that it is familiar elsewhere, from ice cream scoopers in Cleveland, Ohio, to bank tellers in Gainesville, Florida). So it’s not local; it’s spread across the entire breadth of the continent. What’s interesting about it is that it’s a fused relative construction with human denotation, headed by the relative pronoun lexeme who. And that is a possibility that has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years.
In general, fused relatives with who just aren’t used in contemporary English. In Shakespeare’s time it was commonplace (recall Iago’s remark in Othello: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands). It survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.
Except in this peculiar use in coffee shops and the like, because in Can I help who’s next? we have a fused relative construction: it’s the object of help.
Like Pullum, I had noted the atypicality of Can I help who’s next?, and figured it was just an exceptional piece of syntax that wasn’t part of some bigger pattern. But now, from an eight-year-old girl, we have another fused relative headed by who, in a completely different context, used as a subject instead of a verb, and not part of some set, formulaic expression. Could this kind of fused relative be making a comeback, or was the phrasing unintentional? You can hear Elizabeth Hughes and decide for yourself. The story is also featured on the NPR blog, and if you listen to the first audio clip there, you’ll hear the phrase at about 1:19.
I was still thinking about this fused relative as we pulled into the garage, and Norris was asking Hughes if, since she never got to (audibly) finish her solo at the hockey game, she’d like to do it right now on the radio. I quickly turned off the ignition and set the parking brake, and the boys and I got right out of the car, just in time not to hear Hughes say, “No, that’s OK, I’m cool.”