Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Grammarian, XIV

Here's another grammatical point for all of you who like to sing Christmas carols (and who wouldn't?). In particular, this carol:

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"

Now, class, who can tell me why it says gentlemen here? Is this sexist? Is it discriminating against women?

The answer, of course, is no. The gentlemen, boys and girls, are the shepherds. This carol is based on the angel's announcement to them in Bethlehem when Christ was born. It has the angel calling them gentlemen.

Here, then, is the grammatical point to be made: they are not being addressed as "merry gentlemen" here, but merely as "gentlemen." The word "merry" goes with "God rest ye," an old English way of saying, fear not! That's what "God rest ye merry" means.

The "ye" is not King James English, but old English; otherwise it would be poor grammar, since "ye" in KJV English is nominative plural, but in old English is used in the accusative case.

Hence, there should be a comma in the opening line, thus:

"God rest ye merry, gentlemen; let nothing you dismay . . ."


matthaeus glyptes said...

Thanks for the clarification on "Gentlemen"!

"Ye" more likely here respresents a modern English dialectalism. Since the song properly postdates the Old English period (ending ca. 1100) and since the Old English paradigm was pl. nom. 'ge' /je:/, acc., dat. 'éow' /e:0w/. 'Ye' has been used for both nominative and oblique forms in many country and colloquial speeches.

Alternatively, it is a late Middle-English corruption (from reading) of 'the', by misreading of the thorn character formerly used to reprsent 'th', e.g. the common archaism "ye olde..." = "the olde..."

Father Eckardt said...

Thanks for this addition; actually I was wondering a bit about "ye" used in the object here, and suspected that both this and the usage of "ye olde" were corruptions of some sort, or perhaps colloquialisms.