Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2014

The wife has spent numerous hours planning the itinerary for a trip we’re going to take out west later this summer. She has tricks up her sleeve that I never would have thought of for finding the best prices for airfare, car rentals, and hotels, so I bow to her travel-savvy. But all our discussions about the American West did get me to do some intense thinking of my own.

So you know the song “Home on the Range”? When I first heard it sung, on Captain Kangaroo when I was probably four or five years old, there were two lines in it that nagged at me. One was Where the skies are not cloudy all day, with its strange scope interaction between the negation of not and the universal of all. (Only cloudy some of the day? Uncloudy all day?) The other was the line that came right before it:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word

Seldom was not in my vocabulary yet, but whatever it meant, it apparently must be a real bummer of a word to hear. Why might that be? And why would you be so likely to hear it? Were people out west in the habit of just walking up to one another and saying this particular discouraging word? “Hey, guess what!” “What?” “Seldom! Ahahaha!”

Some years later I learned what seldom meant, and eventually plugged the meaning into the “Home on the Range” lyrics. Then I was able to parse the line as a kind of negation inversion along the lines of Never have I ever…, Only rarely is he in his office, or Not a word did she speak. Mystery solved!

Or was it?

Let’s start off by taking out the seldom, an dputting this line into non-inverted, ordinary English word order of subject verb complement:

(no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.

If the line in the song were the same kind of negation inversion as in my examples, I’d expect the negative-like word first, then the auxiliary verb (which in this case is also the main verb, is), and then the subject and any complements, like this:

(Negative inversion) Seldom is a discouraging word heard.

…instead of what we actually have:

Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

Compared to the typical negative inversion, the subject and the complement have swapped places. This seems more like copular inversion, where a subject and a complement connected by a finite form of be switch places. This is the kind of inversion we get in utterances like Of greater concern is the fact that you lied, or Absorbent and yellow and porous is he. But this doesn’t get us our desired output, either. If we take a discouraging word as the subject (as we’ve been doing), and take the phrase seldom heard to be the complement (instead of just heard, as we’ve been doing), we get this:

(Copular inversion) Seldom heard is a discouraging word.

To sum up: two kinds of inversion, and neither of them produces the relevant line in our classic American folk song. At least, not individually…

Together, copular inversion and negative inversion can get us what we want, if we just assume that seldom doesn’t get into the picture until step 3:

  1. (no inversion) A discouraging word is heard.
  2. (copular inversion) Heard is a discouraging word.
  3. (negative inversion) Seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I find it interesting that this negative inversion can do its work on whatever appears in the typical subject position, whether or not it’s a subject. Does this really happen in other examples? Let’s try another one:

  1. (no inversion) The man who finds wisdom is happy.
  2. (copular inversion) Happy is the man who finds wisdom.
  3. (negative inversion) ??Seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom.

That one doesn’t work so well, so now I’m not sure I’ve identified what’s going on in “Home on the Range.” Maybe there’s some locative inversion with the where going on as well, like what Robert Burns has in his poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The poem is about how this guy and his friends like to have fun drinking together, and don’t worry about how late they’re going to arrive home,

Where sits our sulky sullen dame.
Gathering her brows like gathering storm,
Nursing her wrath to keep it warm.

I’ve tried locative inversion, though, and haven’t found a satisfactory combination of moves to get the desired output yet. Now isn’t that a discouraging word?

8 Responses to “Seldom Is Heard a Discouraging Word”

  1. Ran said

    I know it’s cheating to wave off syntactic oddities by invoking poetic license, but: “where seldom is heard a discouraging word” both scans (˘´ ˘˘´ || ˘˘´ ˘˘´) and rhymes (ABCB), in line with the first and third lines of each other stanza, whereas “where seldom is a discouraging word heard” would be a metrical cata-strophe.

    That said, I guess we don’t need to (or can’t) resort to poetic license here, since similar constructions occur in prose:

    > Seldom is seen a conjunction of such cold purity of thinking with such generosity of nature ; […]

    > Seldom is found a rich man, that has children also; […]

    I think the key factor might be that “X is heard/seen/found” is not actually predicating something of X (in the way that “X is happy” does); rather, it simply means that X exists. So, for example, I would find “there seldom is heard a discouraging word” unexceptionable (and likewise “there often is heard […]”, etc.), whereas *”there seldom is happy the man who finds wisdom” seems clearly ungrammatical.

  2. Kevin said

    Well, that’s certainly corrected one misapprehension (harboured by me for 60+ years now). I can finally stop singing: Where the skies are not cloudy or grey.

    • Neal said

      Wow, that’s completely new to me. I see there are ~450 Google hits for it (before paging through them to find the real number at the end), and even some of those are duplicates.

  3. Like Kevin, I always heard it as “…not cloudy or gray.” (The “grey” spelling was and remains alien to me.)

  4. David N. Evans said

    I wonder if a There-Insertion analysis is possible. Couldn’t “where” be functioning at once as locative “there” and dummy “there”?

    Passive Voice: “Where a discouraging word is seldom heard”
    There-Insertion: “Where there is seldom heard a discouraging word”
    Move “seldom”: “Where there seldom is heard a discouraging word”
    Delete dummy “there”: “Where seldom is heard a discouraging word”

    My thought is that, formulated as a stand-alone sentence, the relative clause would be “There there seldom is heard a discouraging word,” that sentence deriving from “There seldom is heard a discouraging word there.”

    • Neal said

      I’m with you for the first three steps, but the last one doesn’t occur in other situations, as far as I know. What rule allows you to just remove a dummy there?

      • David N. Evans said

        Thank you, Neal. I think I went astray there, sorry. I don’t know of a rule that allows one to delete a dummy “there.” About a day after I made my comments, I wished I had taken a different, and simpler, approach. It occurred to me that it would be both grammatical and natural to say “Seldom is THERE HEARD a discouraging word,” and that the “there” in that sentence might — just might — reasonably be interpreted not only as dummy “there” (filling in for and anticipating “a discouraging word”) but perhaps also as locative “there,” in which case it could, from a transformational standpoint, move to introduce the relative clause as “where”: “Where seldom is _ heard a discouraging word.”

  5. dpeach said

    What bothers me more about this classic Bugs Bunny rendition is that he says “deers” instead of “deer.”

    I don’t have a linguistic explanation as to why he would do that.

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