Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

January Links

Posted by Neal on January 8, 2009

When I was a kid, I noticed that old-fashioned-sounding English tended to have the suffix -eth here and there, but didn’t know the rule for where it would appear. In sixth grade, I tried to write some archaic-sounding English in a creative writing assignment, and wrote (in a line that recurred several times) to payeth. A few years later, I finally figured out that -eth was a third-person singular present-tense suffix (and the similar-sounding -est was the corresponding second-person singular present-tense suffix). Ever since, I’ve been irritated by people who never learned this, and still stick -eth or -est onto any old verb to make it sound archaic. I heard someone do it again during the Christmas break, when my wife and I watched some old Disney movies with Doug and Adam. One of them was That Darn Cat! I was wondering exactly why Haley Mills’s character would have a British accent while her sister and everyone else in the movie (except for Roddy McDowall) had American accents, but that line of thought was interrupted when Dean Jones’s character, an FBI agent, explained to his fellow agents that they would be tailing a cat. He said, “Whither he goest, you will go.” Yes, I know he was alluding to the King James translation of Ruth 1:16, but I’m sorry, when you change a thou to he, you have to change goest to goeth.

Or do you? Jan Freeman makes the case that I am entirely too uptight about this issue, pointing out that even in the English of several hundred years ago, the suffixes were not that consistent. OK, I’ll grant her that. But what about the really stupid examples of what Arnold Zwicky has called “ornamental eth”? When I wrote “to payeth”, at least I realized on some level that -eth was a verbal suffix. Some people never realized even that, including the writers of a medieval SpongeBob episode who had Plankton saying, “Bring it oneth!”, and the writers of Shrek the Third who went so far as to put -eth on an interjection: Eweth!

Several linguistics bloggers have linked to Jan Freeman’s columns from the next week, on “rule by whim”. And with good reason; if you haven’t followed their links yet, you can follow this one.

Arnold Zwicky of Language Log now has a blog all to himself. This post talks about an issue that’s come up here occasionally: regular verbs becoming irregular. The verbs I’ve talked about end in a lax vowel followed by t, as in pet, grit, and retrofit. Zwicky discusses these, and adds a new one with a complication: text. Lax vowel, ending with a t, but with two extra consonants, [ks], intervening. The nearest model for this kind of irregularization is verbs like cast and burst. Hey, I wonder if the pattern will spread to verbs like test and list. In a quick Google search, I found what he meant is that he never test it with the ms1 (link) and He list it in the lease as a discount and not a penalty (link). Have you noticed zero-past-tense forms creeping into regular verbs like these?

Next, what is it with calling people appointed by the president to be “interagency point people charged with cutting through red tape to coordinate policy” czars? What are czars doing in a nominally democratic society? I thought it all started with “drug czar” William Bennett in the first President Bush’s administration, but Ben Zimmer shows that the history goes back almost 100 years. (Hat tip to Jan Freeman’s Word blog.)

Now, a couple from Language Log. First, here’s one from Geoff Pullum on what linguists refer to as “ATB violations“. This post specifically about an ATB-violating wh-question, much like one the one that came up here a while back: why is the best player in the tour barely over 60 percent on sand saves and the tour average is under 50?.

The other Language Log post is a fascinating guest post by historical linguist Don Ringe, on the most likely linguistic situation in Europe before the arrival of speakers of Indo-European languages.

4 Responses to “January Links”

  1. emmaeck said

    Re the faulty esting and ething – I would agree that it’s very annoying when done in a serious pseudo-historical setting – bad historical romances and so on. But in all the examples you cite, doesn’t the error contribute to the funny? “Bringeth it on” doesn’t sound as funny as “Bring it oneth” IMHO. And “Whither he goeth, you will go” wouldn’t resemble the Ruth quote so closely, and the resemblance is part of what makes it funny, to me. Plus if the verb was changed the audience might not recognize the quote at all – or they’d think the Dean Jones character was misquoting!

    (By the way I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and enjoy it very much – thanks for doing it.)

  2. Ellen K. said

    What are ATB Violations? The link you have on it doesn’t have that abbreviation in it’s terms, and neither of the other two pages you link in that paragraph use it.

  3. Neal said

    I agree that the writers were trying to be funny, but IMHO they only succeeded in looking ignorant. If I knew that they knew better, it might work. For example, if it’s a story where some doofus is transported back to Elizabethan England and is trying to fit in by sprinkling -eth and -est in his language and makes an ass out of himself by putting it on particles and interjections. “It’s funny because it’s true,” as They say, and these examples don’t pass that test. As for the Ruth quote, you make good points, but they don’t outweigh (for me) the points I bring up, so the bottom line there is that it was a joke that just wasn’t going to work, no matter how they phrased it.

    Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting!

    Sorry about that. I’ve put in the link I intended now, which should clear things up.

  4. I somehow acquired -est/-eth when I was young. I’ve never had to think about which one to use. I also acquired the subjunctive (at least for the verb “to be”). Clearly I was raised in the 1500’s.

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