Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Just Plain Difficult Christmas Lyrics

Posted by Neal on December 31, 2004

Some Christmas song lyrics draw my attention not because they’re ambiguous, but because they’re just plain difficult to parse. As Geoff Nunberg of Language Log observes, “We like the incantations we recite on ritual occasions to be linguistically opaque, from the unparsable ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ … to the Pledge of Allegiance….” When Doug and Adam were practicing a selection of Christmas songs for the church pageant, I was helping them with a lyric sheet that they’d been given in Sunday school, and I was surprised to see what the lyrics actually were that I’d just been humming all these years.

The real monster syntactically was “What Child Is This?” Here’s part of the first verse (the only one they had to learn):

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
on Mary’s lap is sleeping?

Wow, in just these two lines we have:

  • A relative clause whose subject (who) is separated from its predicate (is sleeping) by…
  • An adjectival passive (laid to rest) and…
  • A prepositional phrase (on Mary’s lap) that’s been put in front of the verb it modifies instead of after it.

Those three facts, combined with the confusion between the forms of lie and lay, result in what must be an unparsable mess to a kid who’s not used to strained poetic syntax. If you intoned it just right, pausing where the commas are, an adult just might stand a chance of understanding it upon hearing it for the first time, but the rhythm of the song takes those pauses right out. If I were a kid, I’d be OK as far as What child is this, who. Then I’d be expecting a sentence with a direct object gap (maybe I see, to give us who I see), or a verb phrase that will take who as its subject. The latter is exactly what seems to come next with laid, which is going to sound like an ordinary, finite, past-tense verb to many present-day English speakers, and especially to a kid who hasn’t had lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid drummed into him. So after I’d gotten past the main verb laid, I’d keep adding the modifiers to it as they came: to rest, on Mary’s lap. But then I’d come to is sleeping, and there the sentence would crash, as I tried to find some place to fit this finite verb in a sentence that had already filled that position. What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap? sounds like a complete sentence, and is sleeping sounds completely superfluous. In other words, the first two lines of the song form a classic garden-path sentence.

Adam learned it just fine, but Doug complained and complained because he actually wanted to understand what he was singing. So I tried translating it for him: “OK, how’s this? What child is this, who was laid to rest, and is now sleeping on Mary’s lap?” He still hated it. I used a “stop making sense” procedure, reciting my translation slowly so he could tell me the exact point when it stopped making sense. It stopped making sense when I coordinated laid to rest with is now sleeping, which to his mind was redundant. I quickly disabused him of that idea, reminding him of the times I’d spent staking out his bedroom when he was a baby, making sure he didn’t climb out of his crib when he was supposed to be taking a nap. Once we got past that, I tried to get him to agree that on Mary’s lap is sleeping was OK, even though is sleeping on Mary’s lap sounded better. He didn’t agree. At that point I didn’t even try to show how laid to rest was equivalent to was laid to rest and. It would have been an exercise in futility. He was just going to have to memorize the words like everyone else.

There was some other twisted syntax in the songs, most notably “We Three Kings,” which I think I’ll save for another post. And moving beyond the syntax, the archaic words in these songs make them ripe for folk etymologizing on the part of the kids who learn them, so stay tuned for a few examples of that.

6 Responses to “Just Plain Difficult Christmas Lyrics”

  1. Anonymous said

    Neat. But how come you didn’t go into the PostPassion sense of “laid to rest” justaposed science fiction style with the “on Mary’s lap”? the future impaling the present. (I don’t have a blog, am not ready to bother, so I comment this way.)

  2. Anonymous said

    I always saw it as “What child is this, who (laid to rest on Mary’s lap) is sleeping?”


  3. Anonymous said

    The carol I always had trouble with as a child was “Deck the Halls”, particularly the line in the first verse that goes, “Don we now our gay apparel.” Since I’d never heard anybody use “don” as a verb, I thought that it was somebody’s name. So the line began, “Don, we now…” We now what? “Don, we now are gay…” So far, so good — the song was clearly informing somebody named Don about the cheerful and festive state of the carolers. But what about “apparel”? Not sure what to make of it, I concluded that it must be some kind of adverb, and that it probably meant “all together”.

  4. […] started to get a few more hits on my posts on Christmas songs, so I’ll write about one that I never got around to last year or the year before. In […]

  5. […] The script was inspired by a real-life misunderstanding that Doug had seven years ago, and which I blogged about at the time. I’ve also been thinking about that song because Adam has been practicing playing […]

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