CLOSE
Original image
Thinkstock

6 Grammar Lessons Hidden in Christmas Songs

Original image
Thinkstock

Understand the grammar in your favorite carols.

1. Round yon virgin

The “round” in “Silent Night” might call up imagery of the soft, maternal kind, but in the phrase “round yon virgin,” it simply means “around.” “Yon” is an antiquated word for “that one” or “over there.” The meaning of the phrase in the song depends on the line before it. It should be understood in the context “all is calm, all is bright round yon virgin mother and child.” In other words “Everything is calm and bright around that virgin mother over there and her child.” In technical terms, “round yon virgin mother and child” is a prepositional phrase.

2. Troll the ancient Yuletide carol

Trolling a carol might sound like some obnoxious attempt to undermine it, but it’s actually a great way to get in the holiday spirit. According to the OED, one of the meanings of “troll,” in use since the 16th century, is “to sing in a full, rolling voice; to chant merrily or jovially.” It’s related to the sense of rolling, or passing around, and probably came to be used to mean singing because of rounds, where the melody is passed from one person to the next. The modern, obnoxious sense of troll comes from a much later importation from Scandinavian mythology. People have increasingly been changing this line to “toll the ancient Yuletide carol” (now over 17,000 hits on Google). Don’t let the trolls win! Let’s troll the trolls by dragging this word back to the cheery side!

3. The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head

“Away in a manger, no crib for a bed / The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” This line is a perfect storm of lay/lie confusion. The correct form here is “laid,” but it often gets changed to “lay,” and with good reason. “Laid” is the past tense of “lay,” which should be used here because the little Lord Jesus isn’t simply reposing (lying), but setting something down (laying), namely, his head.

If it were in the present tense, you could say he “lays down his sweet head.” But in the past tense “lay” is the form for “lie.” I know. It’s a rule that seems rigged just to trip people up. But here, it gets even worse, because the word right after “laid” is “down.” There’s a word ending with ‘d’ followed by a word beginning with ‘d.’ When you say “laid down,” it’s hard to tell whether that first ‘d’ is there or not. As a practical matter, both “lay” and “laid” sound exactly the same in this context. So you can fudge it when you sing it. Just be careful how you write it.

4. You better watch out, you better not cry

That’s right, Santa Claus is coming to town, so you better watch out. Or is it “you’d better watch out?” Many grammar guides advise that the proper form is “you’d better” because the construction comes from “you had better,” and it doesn’t make sense without the “had.” The problem is, it doesn’t make much sense with the “had” either, if you want to do a picky word-by-word breakdown.

Though the “had better” construction has been a part of English for 1000 years, it came from a distortion of phrases like “him were better that he never were born,” where “were” was a subjunctive (“it would have been better”) and “him” (or “me,” “you,” “us”) was in the dative case (“him were better” = “it would have been better for him”). People started changing the dative to the subject case (“he were better”) and then changed the “were” to “had.”

That was all hundreds of years ago. Then, in the 1800s, people started dropping the “had.” The grammar books of the late 1800s tried mightily to shore up the “had” (some even making up a rule from nowhere that it should be “would,” as in “he would better”), but these days the bare form is considered correct, if a bit casual for formal contexts. Clearly, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” wants nothing to do with fancy formality. So “you better watch out” is the way to go.

5. With the kids jingle belling and mistletoeing

There is a lot of verbing going on in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” First, “With the kids jingle belling/And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer',” and then, “There’ll be much mistletoeing/And hearts will be glowing when loved ones are near.” Of course, in a song, concessions to rhythm and rhyme need to be made, and sometimes this involves making up a few words. But the practice of turning nouns into verbs is as old as English itself. Many of our verbs started when someone decided to use a noun to stand for some verbal notion related to that noun. First we had “hammer,” and from that we made “hammering.” First we had “message,” and now we have “messaging.” Oil, oiling, sled, sledding, battle, battling. The meaning of the verb is built off some context involving the noun, which could be almost anything (pounding with a hammer, sending a message, putting oil on, riding a sled, engaging in a battle). So verbs for “ringing jingle bells” or “kissing under the mistletoe” aren’t so strange at all. At least no more strange than “gifting” or “dialoguing.”

6. God rest you merry, gentlemen

Notice the comma placement there? The gentlemen in this phrase are not necessarily taken to be merry already. It’s not “Hey, you! You merry gentlemen! God rest you!” It’s “Hey, you gentlemen over there! May God rest you merry!”

In Shakespeare’s time, “rest you merry” was a way to express good wishes, to say something like “peace and happiness to you.” Other versions were “rest you fair” or “rest you happy.” It came from a sense of “rest” meaning “be at ease,” which we still use in the phrase “rest assured.” In “God rest you merry,” “you” is the object of “rest,” so when people make the song sound more old-timey by substituting “ye” for “you,” they are messing up the original grammar because “ye” was the subject form.

Actually, that’s not quite true, because even in Shakespeare’s time, “ye” was sometimes used as the object form. However, if you want to go that way, you should be consistent with your pronouns and sing “God rest ye merry gentlemen/Let nothing ye dismay.” In the second line “you” is also an object, as in “Let nothing dismay you.”

So rest you merry this season, and enjoy your jingle belling, mistletoeing, and trolling.

Original image
Rebecca O'Connell
arrow
Words
What's the Longest Word in the World? Here are 12 of Them, By Category
Original image
Rebecca O'Connell

Antidisestablishmentarianism, everyone’s favorite agglutinative, entered the pop culture lexicon on August 17, 1955, when Gloria Lockerman, a 12-year-old girl from Baltimore, correctly spelled it on The $64,000 Question as millions of people watched from their living rooms. At 28 letters, the word—which is defined as a 19th-century British political movement that opposes proposals for the disestablishment of the Church of England—is still regarded as the longest non-medical, non-coined, nontechnical word in the English language, yet it keeps some robust company. Here are some examples of the longest words by category.

1. METHIONYLTHREONYLTHREONYGLUTAMINYLARGINYL … ISOLEUCINE 

Note the ellipses. All told, the full chemical name for the human protein titin is 189,819 letters, and takes about three-and-a-half hours to pronounce. The problem with including chemical names is that there’s essentially no limit to how long they can be. For example, naming a single strand of DNA, with its millions and millions of repeating base pairs, could eventually tab out at well over 1 billion letters.

2. LOPADOTEMACHOSELACHOGALEOKRANIOLEIPSAN …P TERYGON

The longest word ever to appear in literature comes from Aristophanes’ play, Assemblywomen, published in 391 BC. The Greek word tallies 171 letters, but translates to 183 in English. This mouthful refers to a fictional fricassee comprised of rotted dogfish head, wrasse, wood pigeon, and the roasted head of a dabchick, among other culinary morsels. 

3. PNEUMONOULTRAMICROSCOPICSILICOVOLCANOCONIOSIS

At 45 letters, this is the longest word you’ll find in a major dictionary. An inflated version of silicosis, this is the full scientific name for a disease that causes inflammation in the lungs owing to the inhalation of very fine silica dust. Despite its inclusion in the dictionary, it’s generally considered superfluous, having been coined simply to claim the title of the longest English word.

4. PARASTRATIOSPHECOMYIA STRATIOSPHECOMYIOIDES 

The longest accepted binomial construction, at 42 letters, is a species of soldier fly native to Thailand. With a lifespan of five to eight days, it’s unlikely one has ever survived long enough to hear it pronounced correctly.

5. PSEUDOPSEUDOHYPOPARATHYROIDISM

This 30-letter thyroid disorder is the longest non-coined word to appear in a major dictionary.

6. FLOCCINAUCINIHILIPILIFICATION

By virtue of having one more letter than antidisestablishmentarianism, this is the longest non-technical English word. A mash-up of five Latin roots, it refers to the act of describing something as having little or no value. While it made the cut in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster volumes refuse to recognize it, chalking up its existence to little more than linguistic ephemera.

7. SUBDERMATOGLYPHIC

At 17 characters, this is the longest accepted isogram, a word in which every letter is used only once, and refers to the underlying dermal matrix that determines the pattern formed by the whorls, arches, and ridges of our fingerprints. 

8. SQUIRRELLED

Though the more commonly accepted American English version carries only one L, both Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries recognize this alternate spelling and condone its one syllable pronunciation (think “world”), making it the longest non-coined monosyllabic English word at 11 letters.

9. ABSTENTIOUS

One who doesn’t indulge in excesses, especially food and drink; at 11 letters this is the longest word to use all five vowels in order exactly once.

10. ROTAVATOR 

A type of soil tiller, the longest non-coined palindromic word included in an English dictionary tallies nine letters. Detartrated, 11 letters, appears in some chemical glossaries, but is generally considered too arcane to qualify.

11. and 12. CWTCH, EUOUAE

The longest words to appear in a major dictionary comprised entirely of either vowels or consonants. A Cwtch, or crwth, is from the Welsh word for a hiding place. Euouae, a medieval musical term, is technically a mnemonic, but has been accepted as a word in itself. 

Original image
Thinkstock
arrow
grammar
The Grammar Rules of 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects 
Original image
Thinkstock

Linguists are always taken aback by the overwhelmingly negative and sometimes virulently expressed reaction they get when stating something that every linguist believes (and linguists do not agree on everything!) in a rather uncomplicated way: Every dialect has a grammar.

"Every dialect has a grammar" does not mean "everything is relative, and let's throw away all the dictionaries, and no one should go to school anymore, and I should be able to wear a bath towel to a job interview if I damn well please." What it means is that all dialects, from the very fanciest to the ones held in lowest esteem, are rule-governed systems. Here are three examples from three different commonly disparaged dialects that illustrate how dialects have grammar.

1. Appalachian a-prefixing

One of the most noticeable features of Appalachian English, which has been studied extensively by the linguists Walt Wolfram and Donna Christian, is the a- prefix that attaches to verbs. When people want to mock "hick" speech, they often scatter a-prefixed words around like "a-goin'" and "a-huntin'" and "a-fishin'," but if they don't actually speak the dialect, they usually make mistakes. That is because they don't know the rules of where a-prefixing can apply, and where it can't.

Rules? Yes, rules. To someone who speaks an a-prefixing dialect this sounds right: "He was a-huntin'."

But these sound wrong:

He likes a-huntin'.
Those a-screamin' children didn't bother me.
He makes money by a-buildin' houses.

It is not the case that a-prefixes can attach to any old word ending in -ing. They can attach to verbs, as in the first example. But not to gerunds (a verb serving as a noun for a general action), adjectives, or objects of prepositions, as in the other examples. The fact that those examples sound wrong to dialect speakers shows that there are conditions on where a-prefixes can go. The fact that those conditions can be described in terms of verbs, gerunds, adjectives, and prepositions show that the conditions have to do with the linguistic structure of sentences. A condition that depends on linguistic structure is a rule. A system of these rules is a grammar. This is what linguists mean when they talk about the grammar of a dialect.

People who speak this dialect don't learn these rules from a book. They know them implicitly, even if they can't describe them, the same way you know "I gave him a dollar" sounds good but "I donated him a dollar" sounds bad (even if you've never heard of linguistic argument structure). Their use of the dialect is not whimsical and random, but governed by those rules. Someone who doesn't follow those rules, e.g., in a hamfisted attempt to mock the dialect, can be said to be speaking ungrammatical Appalachian English.

2. Southern American English "liketa"

Often features that are seen as sloppy pronunciations of Standard English show themselves on closer inspection to be used in a non-sloppy, highly consistent way—but according to a different set of rules. In the Alabama dialect studied by linguist Crawford Feagin, speakers say things like, "She liketa killed me!", meaning that she just about started to kill me, but didn't. This "liketa" is not just a shortening of "would have liked to"; it's also possible to say "I liketa had a heart attack."

"Liketa" is close to being a substitute for "almost," but it doesn't behave exactly like that word either; you can ask "did you almost die?" but not "did you liketa died?"

"Liketa" is not just a lazy version of Standard English. You can describe the conditions for its use—the rules of "liketa." As Feagin says, it "occurs in both positive and negative sentences, but not in questions and commands. It may co-occur with the intensifier 'just'; it always occurs in the past." Because rules govern "liketa," it is possible to break those rules, and if you do you can be said to be using it ungrammatically.

3. African-American English stressed "BIN"

African-American English has a number of distinguishing features, one of them being the use of "stressed BIN," described by linguist John Rickford. It carries the main stress of the sentence and is distinct from unstressed "been." It occurs in sentences like "she BIN married," which does not mean "she has been married." It means "she is married, and has been for a long time."

Stressed BIN is like a remote past tense, something that Standard English lacks a simple marker for. It can also be used in places where Standard "been" would not occur, such as "I BIN ate it" (I ate it a long time ago).

There are structural conditions on where stressed BIN can and cannot occur. Its use is governed by rules. As linguist Lisa Green points out, it can't be moved to the front of the sentence for questions (BIN John and Lisa dating?) or used in a tagged question at the end (She BIN married, binn't she?), and it can't be used with phrases indicating a specific time (I BIN asked him bout that three weeks ago). Because there are grammatical conditions for the use of stressed BIN, it is possible to use it the wrong way, as nearly everyone who tries to mock it does.

More explanations of these phenomena and others can be found at the Yale Grammatical Diversity project, the mission of which is to serve as "a crucial source of data for the development of theories of human linguistic knowledge." However you feel about dialects and whether they are worthy of respect, the fact that human ways of speaking always settle into rule-governed systems, all describable in terms of the same set of basic linguistic concepts—that, at the very least, is pretty darn interesting. And frankly, the more you pursue what's interesting about it, the less emotional your judgments about dialects become.

This post originally appeared in 2013.

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios