April 17, 2015 by libroshombre
Today’s word is “redux,” defined as “brought back, returned,” in the American Heritage Dictionary, because there’s more to say about last week’s column’s theme: pronouns. For starters, the Swedish Academy announced they’re adding “hen,” a gender-neutral pronoun to fit between “han” and “hon,” the Swedish “he” and “she.” And for an amusing bedtime read, try Alexander McCall Smith’s “Portuguese Irregular Verbs,” featuring linguist “Professor Dr. von Igelfeld.” Smith’s “Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency” books are better known, but his von Igelfeld novels successfully and gently send up the academic world.
Meanwhile, the national embracing of “y’all” as our second person plural pronoun proceeds apace. An excellent description of how and why appeared in the Slate.com article by Alyssa Pelish, “Do You Say Y’all? How About Yous? The Second Person Plural Won’t Be Ignored!” Fifth century Anglo Saxon words “‘pu,’ like ‘thou,’ addressed one person, and ‘ge,’ like ‘ye’ or ‘you,’ indicated more than one.” Then Normans invaders brought polite and informal second person plurals. “In other words, ‘ye’ was used when speaking to an individual nobleman or a gathering of peasants. ‘Thou’ was reserved for an intimate or an inferior and was always singular.”
By the mid-1500s “the language eventually rid itself completely of a class-based pronoun hierarchy … ‘you’ started replacing all other second person pronouns and becoming an all-purpose means of address – number and social standing be damned.” Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” written around 1600, used “thou” and “you” interchangeably. A century later Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” saw “you” outnumbering “thou” eight-to-one. And Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” a centuryon used only “you” and nary a “thou.” Thus died the English second person plural pronoun, until “y’all” emerged out of necessity. Remember: one person is never “y’all.” And several groups are “all y’all.” As in, “Y’all come!” “But my mother-in-law is visiting.” “Then all y’all come!”
Pronouns are ancient words. A BBC article titled “Oldest English Words Identified” from 2009 cited a Reading University study that revealed “I” and “we” as “dating back tens of thousands of years.” They used supercomputers to identify “a lexicon of 200 words that is not specific to culture or technologies, and is therefore not likely to represent concepts that have not changed across nations or millennia … What the researchers found was that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.”
“Meanwhile, the fastest-changing words are projected to die out and be replaced by other words much sooner.” There are 46 different ways of saying “dirty” in Indo-European languages, for example, so “it is likely to die out soon in English, along with ‘stick’ and ‘guts.’ ”
English literature has seen some notable pronouns, too, such as Isaac Asimov’s classic, “I, Robot,” and Joyce Carol Oats’ “Them.” However, my favorite is a clerihew about Henry Rider Haggard, a moderately talented but extremely popular novelist from the 1880s to 1920s best known for “King Solomon’s Mines” and “She.” If you’ve read the latter, or, better yet, seen the movie, you’ll recall that the title character’s more formally known as “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.” That’s also the name baby Haggard’s nurse gave “a disreputable doll of particularly hideous aspect” that she placed in his bedroom to watch and keep him quiet.
Clerihews shouldn’t be confused with double dactyl, although both involve biographical information. PoeticByway.com says a dactyl is “a metrical foot of three syllables, the first of which is long or accented … as in ‘MER-ily’ or ‘LOV-er boy’.” The double dactyl consists of two quatrains with two dactyls per line, and the first line’s a hyphenated nonsense word, the second line’s the proper name. For instance, “Higgledy piggledy,/ Benjamin Harrison,/ Twenty-third president/ was, and, as such,/ Served between Clevelands and/ Save for this trivial/ Idiosyncrasy,/ Didn’t do much.”
The clerihew, however, is a “humorous, pseudo-biographical verse of four lines of uneven length, with the rhyming scheme AABB, and the first line containing the name of the subject.” We’ll celebrate National Poetry Month and close with this clerihewical tribute to pronouns by W.H. Auden: “Sir Henry Rider Haggard/ Was completely staggered/ When his bride-to-be/ Announced “I am ‘She’!”