Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Christmas songs’ Category

Blue Christmas Cannibalism

Posted by Neal on December 19, 2013

Looking through the community newspaper, I saw an announcement of the various Christmas-related services that a local church was having. One of them caught my eye:

A tradition from Canada?

I liked the creative use of the song title “Blue Christmas” to name a service for, I assumed, people grieving for departed loved ones or maybe with serious health problems. Pretty clever name, I thought, for a service that I hadn’t heard of before but which sounded like it filled a need. Then I looked across to the facing page of the newspaper, saw another listing of Christmas services from another church, and among the services, saw listed another Blue Christmas service. So apparently this wasn’t an original naming, but a more widespread thing. On the American Dialect Society email list, Dan Goncharoff found two attestations from 1998, both from Canada, and both describing it as a service “for those grieving and in pain at Christmas.” If you’ve heard of Blue Christmas services earlier than that, let me know in the comments.

However, that’s not what I really wanted to comment on. I was more interested in the description in the newspaper:

for those whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

It’s another example of prepositional cannibalism! The larger phrase is basically for certain people. And who are those certain people? They are people such that

Christmas is a difficult time for them to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Turning that into a relative clause, we would expect

those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

Putting it all together, we should have

for those for whom Christmas is a difficult time to celebrate in the traditional fashion

But the writer, I suspect, second-guessed themself and figured there must be something wrong with the lineup of for those for. In the earlier post that I linked to, I noted that the two prepositions had to be the same, but actually, that might not be true. In the widely mangled proverb

Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.

the of at the beginning is often lopped off. Why the of instead of the to? I don’t know, but I notice that in these two examples, the preposition that survives is the one that points to the beneficiary role: the person who is given much, the person the service is intended for.

They seem to have left off an S here

On an unrelated note, for a few hours after I read the announcement, I had “Blue Christmas” running through my head, and not just any version, but the version from Elvis’s Christmas Album, including the wah-wah-wah-waah ostinato that was drilled into my head through Dad’s numerous playings of the album over the years. What’s the linguistic connection? Also on that album is “Santa Bring My Baby Back,” which I first heard at age 4, when Dad had just bought the album and was playing it for us. “Listen, Neal-o, he wants Santa to bring his baby back,” he told me. At that age, I knew nothing of the lexical ambiguity of baby; I just wondered why jolly old Santa had taken away this man’s child.

Posted in Christmas songs, Christmas-related, Relative clauses | 1 Comment »

Christmas Codas

Posted by Neal on December 26, 2012

During some of the Advent church services in the past month, and the Christmas Eve service earlier this week, I’ve had occasion to be reminded of a phonotactic constraint that, evidently, wasn’t so hard and fast when a lot of our classic Christmas music was written. Specifically, I’m talking about syllables that end with [vn], as in heav’n and giv’n, which come up a lot in these songs. Often they come up very close to each other in order to make a close-enough rhyme. For example, there’s this pair of lines in “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

How silently, how silently, the wondrous Gift is giv’n;
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His Heav’n.

It also happens with [zn] in the ris’n that I ran across in another song. So to generalize, these songs allow a syllable to end with a voiced fricative (i.e. [z] or [v]) followed by an [n]. The other voiced fricatives in English are [ð] (as in thy) and [ʒ] (as in genre). As far as I know, there are no English words that end in [ʒən], so there’s no chance of finding such a word shortened to end in just [ʒn]. English words that end in [ʒən] include words like vision and fusion, but those tend to turn up in hymns so much. As for words that end in [ðən], there’s heathen, so I’d predict that if any of these songs had the word heathen in them, we could expect to see it written heath’n. But I checked, and heathen isn’t such a popular word in hymns.

As I struggle to sing heav’n and giv’n as single syllables, I have to wonder why it’s so difficult. After all, the consonant clusters [vn] and [zn] aren’t so different from other consonant clusters that form easily pronounceable syllable codas in other English words. (A syllable’s coda is the string of whatever consonants occur at its end.) Fricatives in a syllable coda can combine with certain non-nasal stops, provided the voicing is the same. Here are the admissible and inadmissible combinations of voiceless fricatives with voiceless stops:

  • *[fp]
  • [ft] lift
  • *[fk]
  • *[θp]
  • [θt] frothed (for some speakers)
  • *[θk]
  • [sp] asp
  • [st] mist
  • [sk] ask
  • *[ʃp]
  • [ʃt] mashed
  • *[ʃk]

Summing up the voiceless fricative-stop combinations, it looks like [s] can combine with any of [p], [t], or [k], but the other fricatives can only go with [t]. Now here are the admissible and inadmissible combinations of voiced fricatives and voiced stops:

  • *[vb]
  • [vd] lived
  • *[vg]
  • *[ðb]
  • [ðd] breathed
  • *[ðg]
  • *[zb]
  • [zd] raised
  • *[zg]
  • *[ʒb]
  • [ʒd] massaged
  • *[ʒg]

These are even more restricted than the voiceless combinations: Now, only three out of the four eligible fricatives ([v], [ð], and [z]) can combine with a stop, and even then only with [d]. However, the fact is that these voiced fricatives can combine with [d] to form a syllable coda. Furthermore, the only difference between [d] and [n] is that for [d], your nasal passage is blocked, whereas for [n], air is coming out through your nose. So why are [vd] and [zd] so easy for English speakers to say, while [vn] and [zn] aren’t?

One possibility that occurred to me was to blame it on the fact that [n] is a continuant. That is, because the airstream can escape through your nose, you can stretch out an [n] as long as you have breath, whereas a [d] is over in an instant. For that reason, the [n] after another consonant feels like another syllable. But that won’t work, because fricatives are continuants, too, and fricative-fricative codas are perceived as one syllable: buffs, lives, writhes, fifth.

Instead, the rule seems to be that a sonorant sound can’t come after a fricative in a syllable coda. Sonorants consist of vowels, liquids (that is, [r] and [l]), glides ([j] as in yet and [w]), and nasals, so this rule also explains why words that end in [zm] or [ðm], such as chasm or rhythm have two syllables instead of one. (I imagine that this rule has been long known, and written up in some article or textbook somewhere, but I haven’t found it. References or corrections are welcome in the comments.) Sonorants after sonorants are OK, as in kiln, barn, and film (though I understand that in some dialects, film is pronounced with two syllables: “fill-em”). For another phonotactic constraint involving codas and sonorants, see this handout for a UMass linguistics class taught by Kyle Johnson.

All that’s well and good for present-day English, but I still wonder: When did it stop being OK for English codas to end in [zn] and [vn]? Was it ever part of everyday language, or just for poetry and songs?

Posted in Christmas songs, Phonetics and phonology | 9 Comments »

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?

Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Morphology, Phonetics and phonology, Prescriptive grammar | 9 Comments »

Merry Gentlemen?

Posted by Neal on December 25, 2010

At the Christmas Eve service earlier this evening, the bulletin listed one of the songs as “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen”, and I saw by the placement of the comma that the words merry and gentlemen had been taken to be parts of a single noun phrase, merry gentlemen. Well, why wouldn’t they be parsed that way? If you don’t take merry to modify gentlemen, then where else are you going to slot it into the sentence?

In fact, I didn’t know until recently. All I knew was that somehow, for some reason, the lyrics weren’t intended to refer to merry gentlemen. But once I started to think about it, even putting together merry and gentlemen in the seemingly sensible way meant that the rest of the sentence was just God rest ye. What did that mean? Isn’t God rest his soul something you say about a dead person? “May God grant eternal rest to you merry dead guys”? (This use of rest, of course, would be a present subjunctive, but I don’t have any more to say about that.)

According to the current Wikipedia entry, rest “denotes ‘keep or make’,” so God rest ye merry would mean “may God keep or make you merry.” I had never known that rest could be used this way. The closest syntactic possibility I knew of was an intransitive use, with rest taking an adjectival complement, as in the expression rest assured. I had never heard someone use it with a direct object before that adjective complement, saying something like, “I rested him assured that we would be on time.” The closest thing the OED has to a transitive rest that takes an adjective complement after its direct object is a reflexive use. They give a citation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

I haue her soueraigne aid, And rest myselfe content.

However, below all the single-word definitions, the OED did provide a separate definition for the entire phrase (God) rest you merry, with fair and happy listed as archaic alternatives for merry, meaning “may God grant you peace and happiness”. Their list of citations should be enough to convince anyone that that’s what’s going on in this song. Here are a few of them:

1548 T. Cooper Bibliotheca Eliotæ (rev. ed.) , Aue, bee thou gladde: or ioyfull, as the vulgare people saie Reste you mery.
1568 U. Fulwell Like wil to Like in W. C. Hazlitt Dodsley’s Sel. Coll. Old Eng. Plays (1874) III. 342 God rest you merry both, and God be your guide.1597 Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet i. ii. 83 Rest you merrie.
1600 Shakespeare Merchant of Venice i. iii. 57 Rest you faire good signior, Your worship was the last man in our mouthes.
1663 A. Cowley Cutter of Coleman-St. ii. viii. 26 Help me into my Bed; rest you merry, Gentlemen.
1774 J. Burgoyne Maid of Oaks i. ii. 14 Rest you merry, Master Carpenter—take a draught of the ‘Squire’s liquor, and welcome, you shall swim in it, when all is over.
1823 Scott Quentin Durward I. ii. 31 ‘Rest you merry, fair master,’ said the youth.

So that’s that: merry is part of the verb phrase rest you merry, or if you wish, part of the set expression God rest you merry. Just one more little thing, though: What’s with the ye? In fact, this question comes up no matter how you parse the merry: As the direct object of transitive rest, the pronoun should be the archaic objective form you, not the archaic nominative form ye. Compare the Bible quotation “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Another question would be why it’s rest you merry instead of rest yourself merry when God’s not involved. Perhaps just because the expression God rest you merry was well-enough established to override the yourself.)

The title isn’t always written as God rest ye merry. According to Wikipedia, the song was first published in 1833, and its lyrics are written as rest you merry in various sources from the early to mid 1800s. Their guess is that the substitution of ye “may be a modern insertion to make the carol sound more quaintly archaic.” According to Joseph Bottum, in an article from 2008 in the Weekly Standard, Christmas carol writers of the Victorian era often tried to do this:

That feeling of oldness, that power to seem traditional, remains a requirement of the music–even though the Christmas carol is essentially a Victorian invention. ….
The universal Christmas canon [the Victorians] established contained some genuinely older songs: “The First Nowell,” for instance, and the Wesleyan “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Much of what the Victorians did, however, was write new songs they tried to make sound traditional.

I recommend reading the whole article, because Bottum tackles the clanking syntax and strained rhymes of the rest of the song, including the verses you never sing.

Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Syntax | 5 Comments »

See How They Bunch

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2010

On Saturday, Doug and Adam and I were sitting in the performance room of the studio where they have their piano lessons. We were there for the annual Christmas (well, “holiday,” I suppose) performance, with students playing or singing the Christmas songs they’d been practicing for the past month and a half. It was a casual event, with the families sitting at tables drinking coffee or hot chocolate that the studio owner had put out in the lobby, and kids coming up to the stage to do their piece whenever they felt like it.

As Doug and I ate Hershey’s kisses from the table’s centerpiece, one of the voice students and her teacher took the stage. They adjusted the mike, and the student began to sing, “City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style…”

Ah, “Silver Bells”, the now-classic 1950 song by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. It’s OK, I guess. It doesn’t make me gag like a few songs that should never have been written, like “Wonderful Christmastime”, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. But there’s one line that does make me wince every time I hear it. It’s in the second verse.

The student finished the first verse, and was joined by her teacher as she launched into the chorus. Not long now.

“Hey, guys, here it comes,” I murmured, as student and teacher sang, “Strings of street lights, even stop lights / Blink a bright red and green”. Actually, I like that line. It’s clever, poetically pointing out how the red-means-stop, green-means-go traffic lights fit right in with city Christmas decorations. I picture looking down a city street with a series of green traffic lights receding into the distance, turning red one by one. (Or all at once, depending on how the city engineers arrange it.)

The student continued: “Hear the snow crunch.” I braced myself. Adam grinned as he watched me. The teacher finished the line: “See the kids bunch.” Ooh! There it was!

As the singers finished the verse, singing “This is Santa’s big scene…”, Doug and Adam stifled their giggles. They know I hate that line. “See the kids bunch”? Since when is bunch a respectable intransitive verb meaning “to gather in clusters or bunches”?

Well, since at least 1873, according to the OED. Here’s their attestation:

Buffalo grass and gama grass‥show a tendency to bunch together, leaving large portions of the surface bare.

Hold on! Not so fast. I’m OK with bunch together and bunch up, especially if we’re talking about inanimate things like kinds of grass. I may not like it when my underwear bunches up, but it’s good to have a way to talk about it. What I have a problem with is plain old bunch with nothing coming after it. But it looks like that’s been around for a few years, too; the OED has this attestation from 1924:

The really big people don’t talk—and don’t bunch—they paddle their own canoes in what seem backwaters.

Furthermore, the verb is still in use. Here are a couple of more recent examples from CoCA:

Bunching is a big problem,” Scholl says, “because if they’re doing that, they’re not grazing and gaining weight.”

It seems astonishing, considering that the Kenyans run with such graceful domination in Boston and New York and everywhere on the roads, bunching and surging in packs, such elegant wolves.

All right, I guess I can’t accuse Livingston and Evans of inventing this verb for the sole purpose of making a rhyme. But I will say that to find it, they were scraping the bottom of the barrel pretty hard.

UPDATE, 12/16/2010: Corrected date of writing of song. (Thanks, Dad.)

Posted in Christmas songs, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Away to the Window I Flew, Tore, and Threw

Posted by Neal on December 23, 2009

I’ve written about “The Night Before Christmas” (the poem formerly known as “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) a couple of times before. Once it was to untangle the dense syntax of As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle mount to the sky, so up to the housetop his coursers they flew, with a sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas, too. The other time, it was on the nonparallel coordination (a multiple-level coordination, in fact, like the ones in my last post) He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. Now I’ve noticed another nonparallel coordination in this poem, in a line that’s usually more noted for the ambiguity of throw up:

Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Inversion, Kids' entertainment, Other weird coordinations | 4 Comments »

You Better Not Shout

Posted by Neal on December 11, 2009

Yesterday I heard a first-grade boy singing

You better not shout,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I’m tellin’ you why. . . .

He got distracted before he could get to “Santa Claus is coming to town”, but he already had me humming the song to myself, trying to remember what the real words were. It was hard after hearing the ones he sang, which were so close that they were interfering with my recall, but after a few seconds I managed to pull them up:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Phonetics and phonology, The darndest things | 7 Comments »

More Christmas Song Confusion

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2008

jesus_nativityDoug and Adam participated in our church’s Christmas play last Sunday (uh, the Sunday before last? two Sundays ago?), and as I listened, I noticed a couple of changes the Sunday school teachers had put in the lyrics of the carols they sang. First of all, they’d changed traverse to travel in “We Three Kings”. Second, they had the kids singing “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!” Not the Lord is come, but the Lord has come. I think the motive for both changes was the same: Too many kids would mess up the unfamiliar words and forms and say them this way anyway, so they might as well get everyone “singing from the same hymnbook” (Ha! Get it?). And if you’re wondering why it should ever have been the Lord is come in the first place, Grammar Girl explains it in one of her more linguisticky episodes. I’ve linked to it before, but I’m doing it again here for convenience.

A few days later, Doug and Adam and I were wrapping presents in the living room while I had the iPod shuffling through the Christmas music. As it played “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” I found myself wondering once again about the line

Oh come, let us adore him.

Wasn’t it strange to be suggesting that we should do something that usually you don’t have conscious control over? It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s be surprised!”, or “Let’s love to go to the movies!”, or “I know, let’s hate runny scrambled eggs!” I wasn’t wondering as much as I did when I was a kid, because when I took high school Latin, one of the first things we did was learn to recite the Latin version, “Adeste Fideles”. I saw that the line Oh come, let us adore him corresponded to the Latin Venite adoremus — so adore was clearly a pretty direct borrowing from Latin. Later in the class I learned that orare meant “to pray”, and ad was a prefix that could go with a lot of verbs. So I figured that adore must have originally meant something like “pray to”, and then undergone a semantic shift. Nevertheless, I still wondered about it somewhat, because during all these years, I’d never actually gotten around to looking it up.

As I was thinking all this, Doug said, “Why do they say, ‘Oh come, let us adore him’?”

“You know, Doug, I’ve wondered about that for years,” I said. I told him my suspicion, and then hit on a radical idea. I could turn around, and without even standing up, reach the dictionary in the bookshelf behind me, and find out once and for all what was going on with adore. In short, I was right. The earliest definition was to revere or worship, and the “really like” meaning came later. Now that I’ve looked at the online OED, too, I see that the word entered the language in the early 1300s, and the “highly regard” meaning that has eroded to “really like” first appeared in the 1500s.

frostyContinuing on the subject of confusing words or phrases in Christmas songs, I heard “Frosty the Snowman” playing, and it occurred to me that the line

With corncob pipe and a button nose and two eyes made out of coal

was just asking to be mondegreened. I checked it out, and sure enough, at least one person mis-heard the line in the way that I was thinking.

stnickAnd last, here’s another line from “The Night Before Christmas” (or if you really want to be pedantic about it, “A Visit from St. Nick”), which I’ve written about before:

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

What do you know? It’s another multiple-level coordination, one that I never noticed until this year. We have a verb phrase (sprang to his sleigh), another verb phrase (to his team gave a whistle), and an entire clause (away they all flew like the down of a thistle) joined by a single and.

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Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Multiple-level coordination | 13 Comments »

I Love The

Posted by Neal on December 8, 2007

Since October, Doug and Adam’s piano teacher has been assigning them exclusively Christmas songs. Each week she’s assigned a couple more, and told them to keep playing the ones they’ve mastered so that they can play them at an informal recital. By now they have a repertoire of about a dozen songs each, but Doug strives to do his daily practice in the same amount of time as he took when he tackled his first two Christmas songs. He’s been treating us to “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Joy to the World” as fast as he can play them. As loud as he can, too. It’s even weirder when he plays his fast, loud versions of “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger.”

Ah, yes, “Away in a Manger.” The song I played a crummy rendition of on the xylophone in front of my second grade class. Source of “till morning is night”. And come to think of it, source of another misheard lyric. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Ambiguous song lyrics, Christmas songs, Diachronic | 2 Comments »

Dry Leaves That Before the Wild Hurricane Fly

Posted by Neal on December 24, 2006

Doug was showing me his reindeer-themed craft/snack from the Christmas holiday winter party at school last week. The kids had spread chocolate icing on an oblong cookie, and put on pretzels for antlers, and a single M&M (or as Glen puts it, an M) for a nose. What color M&M, you ask? Brown, the color of all Santa’s first-string reindeer’s noses? Or red, the nose-color of only one reindeer, who’s only called upon when the weather is foggy? Red, of course! Doug asked if he could have a brown one so he could do Prancer, and the parent who was helping suggested he chip off the candy shell. She was surprised when she came by later and found he’d actually done it.

Adam agreed that whenever teachers did a reindeer craft, the reindeer was always Rudolph. Then he tried to remember the other reindeer’s names. Doug and I recited the relevant couplet from “The Night Before Christmas,” and after the reindeer names we kept on going: “To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away, dash away, dash away all!” I kept on going:

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the housetop his coursers they flew,
With a sleigh full of toys, and Saint Nicholas, too.

Doug said, “What? What part is that?” That part wasn’t in the book he read at school.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Christmas songs, Kids' entertainment, Syntax | 10 Comments »