or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Big Mistake

Here's a paragraph from a new Onion story, New Evidence Suggests God Also Had Incredibly Busty Daughter:

Explaining the difficulty of interpreting the texts, McCormick cited a passage that reads: "Saith Tammi, 'Consider ye this on the forgiveness of one's enemies: Let he who would slander you sup at your table, let he who would inflict…I saith unto thee: Look upon mine eyes, which dwell within mine head, and not upon mine bosom, wherein no wisdom dwells.' And then did Tammi snappeth her fingers together, saying, 'Seriously; I doth mean it. Up here.'"

I'm surprised. The writers at The Onion are smart people: how could they honestly not have any idea that Early Modern English isn't just a random scattering of "thee" and "dost" and "shalt", but that it has a set of rules?

The relevant rules are not very hard to learn:

1) First person possessive is "my" before a consonantal sound, "mine" before a vowel sound: "my father", but "mine enemy". Same with second-person informal: "thy wish", "thine own". This is easy to remember because it's exactly the same as Modern English "a"/"an".

2) Second-person nominative verbs end with "-est", or sometimes its contraction, "-st"; "thou goest", "thou wert" ("were-" plus "-t"), "thou hast". This is easy to remember if you think of "thou dost", because "thou" starts with "t-" and "dost" ends with it.

3) Third-person nominative verbs end "-eth", or sometimes its contraction, "-th", and words ending in a consonant followed by "-y" make the ending "-ith": "he hath" (has + eth, contracted), "she drinketh", "the day brighteneth". This is easy to remember if you think of "he hath"; the pronoun begins with "h-", verb ends with it. (That way, you won't mistakenly say "he hast".)

By my count, there are 6 mistakes in that one short Onion paragraph. We might as well enumerate the EME-isms and see just where the problems lie.

1) "Saith Tammi" is correct, as is

2) "consider ye" (which is actually "thee", using the letter "y" to replace the thorn, the Old English way of representing the sound "th-"). And then it starts to go to hell:

3) "I saith" is wrong, obviously, because "saith" is third-person, not first-person: "I say" is what's needed here.

4) "Mine eyes" is correct, but then

5) "mine head" isn't, unless you're not aspirating the "h-" in "head", which you probably would.

6) "Mine bosom" is also wrong.

7) "Snappeth" is obviously wrong, doubly so, not only because it's the wrong verb ending, but because

8) it's a compound verb, "did snap", so "didst" is what would have been expected, with "snap" taking no ending.

9) "I doth" is of course wrong. "I do" is correct, even if it doesn't sound suitably archaic.

Writing humour doesn't give you licence to jettison all the rules of English, even if those rules are over three hundred years old. Especially because those rules are over three hundred years old.


Speaking of enormous round objects, you really do need to watch this

which ought to give you a sense of perspective. God made the world and the whole universe just to plunk us teeny humans down in it? I don't think so!


Blogger D.J. said...

Nice video; reminds me of Powers of Ten.

I remember editing a manuscript that had been written with EME dialogue. It was awful. When I called the guy on it, he said, "Wait, don't you use 'thou' when you're talking directly to someone, and 'thee' when they're addressing you?" Or something like that. In effect, he'd made up his own rules and then rigorously observed them.

Some days I'm perfectly content to no longer be an editor.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 10:37:00 PM  
Blogger Frank said...

Not to burst your irate bubble, pyramus, but though I really have no idea if they know the proper rules for antique English, I hardly think it matters. Half the joke is that you just scatter a bunch of random thous and thees, and stick a couple of extraneous e's at the end of words and you've got Olde Englishe.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010 11:27:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

Oh, Powers of Ten! I didn't see the movie as a child, but I found the book in the library, and read it over and over again until finally at the age of maybe twenty I just ordered myself a copy, which I still have.

You're not wrong, Frank, and I do take these things too seriously, but I still think that the joke would be no less funny if they had taken the trouble to get the language right. In fact, it probably would have been funnier, because instead of just chucking in a bunch of old-sounding words, they would have had to take the time to think of jokes that used the authentic language accurately but hilariously.

Instead, it kind of feels like one of those bits of writing that mashes together text that's comprehensible to an English speaker with the sound and feel of another language--"Achtung! Alles Lookenpeepers!", only in Early Middle English.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 10:19:00 PM  
Blogger Duffs said...

I've heard that the editor of THOR comic books has this on his wall. (His dialogue was written in this style for many years, though I think less so now.)

Thursday, May 05, 2011 7:21:00 PM  
Blogger Matt Giles said...

I think you proved Frank's point - "alles Lookenpeepers" is a lot funnier than the correct German.

Thursday, May 05, 2011 8:55:00 PM  

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