Archives for 3 January 2014

Happy eleventy-twelfth!

As you (of course) recall, Bilbo said his farewell to the Shire at his eleventy-first birthday party. Apparently ‘eleventy-one’ is a perfectly good word in the Shire, which leads one to infer that Hobbits have a mathematical terminology all their own, not necessarily aligned with plain old mundane decimal arithmetic.

In Chapter VII of The Hobbit, when Gandalf was slowly introducing Beorn to the members of Thorin’s Company (a scene sadly omitted from the wretched Peter Jackson films), Beorn offered this parenthetical comment:

‘But look here, Gandalf, even now we have only got yourself and ten dwarves and the hobbit that was lost. That only makes eleven (plus one mislaid) and not fourteen, unless wizards count differently to other people.’

Wizards may count differently to other people, for all I know, but Hobbits definitely do: at least when they are counting birthdays past 109. ‘Eleventy’ is a good word all the same, and deserves to be used more often. Indeed, say I, there ought to be a special dispensation to extend the eleventies beyond the customary ten years of a decade. A man of 121 ought to be proud to announce his age as eleventy-’leven; and today, the third of January, 2014, is, I am honoured to observe, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s eleventy-twelfth birthday.

Beyond eleventy-twelve, I fear, we shall have to let arithmetic take its course. ‘Twelvety’ is an awkward word, and neither ‘twelvety-three’ nor ‘eleventy-thirteen’ quite has the right sound for a number. We therefore stand at the apex and terminus of that whole line of linguistic development. Eleventy-twelve is the top.

So let us pause awhile on this summit, looking far and wide over Middle-earth, and salute the learned author who acquainted us with the first Three Ages of its previously untold history. Mr. J. R. R. Tolkien is a real gentlehobbit, I always have said, whatever you may think of some others of the name, begging your pardon. So here’s to him, in Niggle’s Parish, or the Delectable Mountains, or wherever he may be; and may God rest his soul still, and grant him joy of his journeys!

The tenth day of Christmas: Nowell

Here is another fine old English carol. After the discussion in the combox about the Middle English pronunciation of yesterday’s selection, I should point out that this song is rendered in just about perfect M.E. Perhaps a little too perfect; for the early stages of the Great Vowel Shift were already underway in the 15th century, when this carol was written. At that stage, if the reconstructions are to be trusted, the long vowels were just beginning to be diphthongs, but they were diphthongal versions of the original English vowels, and had not begun their Völkerwanderung all over the phonological map. The effect would have struck our ears as a kind of drawl or twang. At any rate, all such niceties have been left out of this rendition, and the vowels have been told to stay at home as if they were still perfectly content there, and had not embarked on their secret conspiracy to swap places until the whole system of English spelling became a manifest nonsense.

About the carol itself, there is not much to say, except that it is an interesting example of what is called macaronic verse:

Nowell sing we both all and some,
Now Rex pacificus is y-come.

Ex ortum est in love and liss,
now Christ his grace he gan us giss, etc.

Compare the tongue-in-cheek elegy by John Skelton, which ended with the lines:

Sepultus est among the weeds,
God forgive him his misdeeds,
With hey ho, rumbelo,
Per omnia saecula,
Saecula saeculorum.

As this example shows, macaronics were generally employed for comic effect, mixing Latin words and phrases with the vernacular in whatever silly way the metre would allow. Latin–English macaronic verse usually has a doggerel quality, partly because rhymes are so much easier to come by in Latin than in our own language with its ill-assorted collection of stolen words. But in ‘Nowell sing we’, the macaronic is employed with a perfectly serious intent, using bits of Latin that every Englishman of the times would have known from the Mass, and not at the end of the line for easy rhyming, but at the beginning of each verse to introduce a particular topic.

Each verse ends with the line ‘Both all and some’, which seems like an oxymoron, but in fact is probably the shortest possible way of putting the central paradox in the Christian doctrine of salvation. Christ died for us all, so that we might all be saved; but it remains with each one of us to accept or reject that gift, and only some of us, in the end, will do so. The blood of Christ is pro vobis et pro multis effundetur, ‘poured out for you and for many’ – a reminder that the efficacy of the gift is not extended to all, and in particular, not to those who sincerely refuse it. It is, in effect, a gift for ‘both all and some’.

Here, for all and some, is ‘Nowell sing we’.