or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, August 14, 2006

Early Modern Errors

Christopher Buckley is a smart writer, and he's written an amusing piece in the New Yorker called "Stations of the Mel"*, but wouldn't you think that he and/or the editors could get Early Modern English pronouns and verbs right?

I've written about EME pronouns and verb suffixes before, most recently here and in much more detail quite a while ago in this posting, and here we go again, I'm afraid.

Buckley blows it right from first paragraph:

MEL IS CONDEMNED BY THE PRESS. Mel is pulled over by a centurion for driving his chariot at great speed, and accused of having a blood-alcohol level exceeding that mandated by Tiberius. “Arrest me not,” he telleth the centurion, “for I owneth Malibu. And thou lookest a bit Jewish unto me.” Sayeth the centurion, “Tell it to the procurator.”

"I owneth" is wrong, because "-eth" is a suffix belonging to the second person singular: "he/she/it owneth". "I own" would have been correct.

Then we come to this trio of sentences in the second paragraph, or station:

His lawyers, agents, and crisis managers sayeth, “Yet we are Jews.” Mel sayeth, “Thou didst not look Jewish when I was besotted with drink. Even so, gettest me out of this place of desolation.”

The trouble is that he's speaking to more than one person, and the EME version of "you (plural)" isn't "thou", it's "ye". As well, the ending is dropped in the imperative, so "gettest" is wrong: it's simply "get" (as in "Get thee behind me, Satan").

And then the third station:

ABC announceth, “Whereupon we hath interest in this project, we thereupon now hath none,” and refereth all calls to its press agent, another Jew, for Hollywood is full of them.

"Announceth" is correct, but "we hath" isn't, because "hath" has the ending that belongs to the third person singular, which "we" isn't; it's third person plural. (I'd also have spelled "referreth" with two "-r-"s, but I can't say for sure that the one "-r-" is wrong. It sure looks wrong, though.)

The seventh station:

MEL FALLS THE SECOND TIME. Whilst being interviewed by the Jew Larry King, Mel’s breath reeketh of alcohol. He sayeth on live television that he doth not like Jews, even those who maketh him rich unto the seventy-seventh generation. Larry breaketh to a commercial, during which Mel’s handlers sayeth unto him, “Art thou trying to give us ulcers?” They calleth for duct tape to be applied to Mel’s mouth.

"Mel's handlers sayeth" is wrong: singular/plural again. Same problem with "they calleth".

There are unfortunately lots of others, but at the risk of trying your patience, here's just one more, the eleventh station:

Disney cryeth out, “Why did we bankroll thou to make a movie about Guatemalans dipped in flour? Who green-lighted this abomination? Let him be brought forth that he may be recircumcised without Novocain.”

"Why did we bankroll thou" is wrong, because "thou" is a subject, not an object, pronoun: "thee" is called for in this case. (He got "why did" right, which strikes me as odd; it seemed as if he was on a roll and would have said "why didst we".)

Why should I care about this, apart from the fact that I'm a fussbudget? Because all of this is an artefact of the evolution of English, and it has its own set of rules. If you're going to use it, you have an obligation to use it correctly, just as you have an obligation to use correct spelling and grammar in plain old Modern English if you want to write well and be understood. Jumbling EME pronouns and verb endings is not a matter of style, and it's not comedy: screwing up something which would be easy to get right doesn't make the piece funnier or more interesting. Either it's right or it's wrong, and in this case there's an awful lot of wrong.

Am I missing the point? I don't think so. I hope not. If there had been some rhyme or reason to it--if the mistakes had been "mistakes", with a structure or a discernable comedic purpose--then I wouldn't have minded, but they seem to be random. (He uses imperative "tell" correctly in the first station, but incorrectly uses "gettest" as an imperative in the second.) It's just a mess. And now I can no longer say that I've never found any grammatical errors in the New Yorker, even if those errors were in a different language.

*I can't include a hyperlink to it because the New Yorker doesn't perma-link anything: in a week's time, it will be gone, or at least findable only if you Google ("stations of the mel" "new yorker").


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