Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Witch Mary

Posted by Neal on November 25, 2011

Grammar Girl is running a guest script I wrote today (that is, she’s running it today; I wrote it some time ago), on difficult syntax in Christmas carols in general, and in particular in “What Child Is This?” 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 it on the piano, and he sounds really good!

As I wrote in that blog post and in today’s Grammar Girl podcast, part of the difficulty is due to the perennial confusion between lie and lay (which I also wrote about in this post about the song “If I Just Lay Here”). For a while, I considered concluding the podcast with a sentence or two about how other traditional Christmas carols can serve as good models of for using lie and lay in the way that is currently considered the standard:

  • Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even
  • the little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
  • the stars in the sky looked down where he lay
  • how still we see thee lie
  • …certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay

I decided against it, because I didn’t want to give the impression that the whole episode was just about lie vs. lay. But as my wife and I were thinking about other Christmas songs, she started running through “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (which I wrote about last year). The second verse goes like this:

In Bethlehem in Israel this blessed babe was born,
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn;
The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.

This one isn’t so good for helping you remember the difference between lie and lay. Sure, you could parse it as was [born and laid], the standard way, but if you don’t already know that’s how it’s supposed to be, you could easily just parse it as [was born] and [laid], with laid used nonstandardly as an intransitive verb.

However, that wasn’t the part that grabbed my attention. Before my wife could move to the third verse, I was interrupting with, “Mary, a witch?!” Then: “Oh, which!”

Two changes in English created this misunderstanding. First is the simplification of the consonant cluster [hw] to [w] for many speakers, as highlighted in this Family Guy clip that I learned about from Language Log a few years ago.

Having the last name I do, I think I still have the [hw] cluster in my language. Sometimes when I give my name over the phone, the person on the other end will hear it as “Quitman”, because they don’t have [hw] in their speech and figure that I must have been saying [kʰw] instead of [hw]. On the other hand, other times they’ll simply not hear the [h] at all, and think my name is “Wittman”, which makes me wonder if I actually pronounce [hw] as consistently as I think I do.

The second change is the loss of the which as a relative pronoun. I never knew about it until I listened to this verse. The which is in the Oxford English Dictionary, though. It’s sure enough archaic now, but was showing up in the 1300s, as in this OED citation:

How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life.

Their last citation is from 1884, from Tennyson:

He holp the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.

There have to be kids who got all confused when they learned Jesus’s mother was a witch. Any of you know of any?

9 Responses to “The Witch Mary”

  1. What exactly is “the which” referring to in all these examples? And would we replace all these with “that” in modern English?

    • Neal said

      That’s a good question, and one I’d have even if it were just plain which. I think it refers to the manger, and nothing is an adverb meaning “not at all” (as in nothing daunted); thus, she willingly accepted this manger to put her baby in, and didn’t complain about it.

    • dainichi said

      My guess is that it’s referring to “In Bethlehem in Israel this blessed babe was born,
      And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn”, i.e. the whole preceding clause. Tennyson seems to be using it in the same way.

  2. Neal said

    Now that I think about it after a night’s sleep, that unusual use of nothing as an adverb contributes to the misunderstanding, too. Take it as a noun phrase and there’s no syntactic gap to force you to parse the clause as a relative clause, and the which then sounds most logical as part of a proper name: Witch Mary.

    • Alright, but what about the other two quotes? Perhaps they could shed further light onto exactly what the job of “the which” is, and what we might translate it to in modern English.

      • Jonathon said

        The OED says “the which” is a nominal relative, also known as a fused relative, which means it’s equivalent to the modern English “that which” or “what”.

      • Neal said

        I missed that detail. However, in the Tennyson example, it just seems to be acting like plain which. I can’t understand the earlier example well enough to know for sure.

  3. I’d personally use “something which” or “a situation which” in constructions similar to the one you quoted (assuming I was writing prose). What Mary didn’t “hold in scorn” at all was not just the manger itself, but the necessity of laying Jesus there. When a relative clause points back to a whole clause like that, using “which/that” alone gets confusing.

    As for that “Witch Mary” mondegreen: I also keep initial w- and wh- distinct, but agree that the merger is common enough to cause misunderstandings. I could easily imagine an older child in Sunday school, who had grown up mishearing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”….and when the teacher was citing the verse from Exodus about not allowing a witch to live, this child would wonder what Jesus did about his own mother.

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