June 02, 2006

Northeastern's school song: Get me rewrite!

Last night was the glittering spectacle of the 11th annual Northeastern Alumni Night at the Pops, at Symphony Hall in Boston, featuring a warm congratulation to outgoing President Richard Freeland and the introduction to the university community of its new president, Joseph Aoun. And since this is the first time an active researcher in the linguistics profession has taken over the presidency of a major research university, naturally Language Log's Boston-area linguistics reporting staff was there to cover the event.

For Barbara and me, the musical highlight was the Gershwin selection: "Summertime" never sounded so lush and emotional, and the performance of "Rhapsody in Blue" made you want to go home and throw away your recordings of it lest they sully the memory. That orchestra is extraordinary. Symphony Hall was packed to the rafters, alumni from classes as far back as 1957 and even earlier were there in great mood, champagne flowed downstairs for donors. Welcoming applause for President Aoun was loud and enthusiastic. Everything was great. Except for one thing. They had to do the school song, of course. And they have a problem. The primary school song, bearing the not exactly original title "Alma Mater", is syntactically a real stinker. President Aoun, you are a syntactician. You have got to have the lyrics of that song reworked.

For a performance of the song, click here to listen to it done a cappella by The DownBeats. Now let's look at the lyrics:

Oh, Alma Mater here we throng
And sing your praises strong.
Your children gather far and near
And seek your blessings dear.
Fair memories we cherish now
And will forever more.
Come, let us raise our voices strong.
Northeastern we adore.

To start with, the opening line has a ludicrous verb choice. One does sometimes talk about crowds thronging a sports stadium, but the intransitive use of the verb is almost unknown. Nobody says "Let's make sure we throng at the Alumni Night on June 1." The only excuse for this absurd verb is (as in so much bad verse) that you need something that a bunch of other words will rhyme with. But the only thing rhymed with this is strong — which is used twice in eight lines! That's 25 percent!

I'm also not sure about gather far and near. People came from far and near for the evening at the Pops, but does gather far and near make any sense at all? There are essentially no Google hits at all for this phrase. A close look at the handful of candidates (other than the NEU song web page) reveals that there is a verse in a Scottish Christmas song with the lines "Clansmen and kith / Will gather, far and near", but the comma is crucial: it allows far and near to be a loose adjunct to clansmen and kith rather than a complement or modifier of gather. The few other distinct hits all seem to be from songs or verse and they're a sorry bunch. Basically this phrase is gibberish despite its two or three past citations.

But worse is to come, when we look at the syntax.

Attributive adjectives are syntactically required to be positioned before the head nominal in English (the postpositive adjective construction as in anyone competent is highly restricted, and not relevant here). I know that in archaic poetry, and bad recent poetry that imitates it, we get lots of exceptions; but it is not what the syntax of ordinary contemporary English permits, and you need a lot of pressure to allow poetic license to justify it. In this miserable verse three out of the four attributive adjectives are placed postnominally in defiance of the ordinary syntax of the language: *praises strong for strong praises; *blessings dear for dear blessings; *voices strong for strong voices. Only fair memories satisfies the syntactic conditions. (All the adjective choices are of course pathetic. Blessings are dear? Memories that are fair? Do you talk like this?)

[Update: it is a very interesting fact that people have been emailing me to say that they thought strong was being used as an adverb: that sing your praises strong was supposed to mean "sing your praises strongly (in a loud clear voice)". The thing is, this would be non-standard. Hit it hard is Standard English. [!]Treat me nice is not. And certainly [!]We should oppose it strong is not (I'm not sure strong works well as an adverb even in non-standard dialects). The writers of these execrable lyrics surely intended to write in the language that is Northeastern's medium of instruction. And that would be Standard English, where the use of zero-derived adverbs (the ones like hard that look exactly like their adjective cousins) is extremely restricted. So no, you cannot read strong as an adverb. But it's very interesting that the post-nominal adjective reading is so unnatural that some of you tried to parse it as an adverb.]

But the lamest thing is (and I know you will see what I mean, President Aoun) the verb-final last line. This uses a construction that linguists often call "topicalization" (not a good name: it doesn't make anything topical, or turn anything into a topic). The Cambridge Grammar uses the better term complement preposing. At this point I have to get slightly technical, but not unbearable.

The Cambridge Grammar (chapter 16, section 3, pp. 1372-1376) distinguishes focus complement preposing from non-focus complement preposing, and discusses the different discourse conditions of the two, but nothing that could make the construction appropriate seems to hold here. In many contexts the construction can't really be used at all in most contexts where its meaning might suggest it was usable. If you saw your friend's mother yesterday and you want to tell about it the next day, you say:

I saw your mother!

It would be bizarre beyond belief to say this instead:

???Your mother I saw!

This is how Yoda tends to talk. But he has an excuse: notice, he is of an alien species. The key element of Yodic syntax is use of complement preposing where the discourse conditions cannot possibly motivate it, leading to simple clauses with pointless Complement - Subject - Verb order. And that's what you've got in this song.

The complement preposing construction works best when you have two noun phrases, one with property A and the other with property B, and you want to constrast them by introducing each up front and then saying what the two contrasting properties are:

This color, I like; that one, I absolutely hate.

So this would be a powerful pair of lines (albeit subject to the charge of negative campaigning, since it sort of downplays the adorability of another university):

Harvard, we admire
But Northeastern, we adore!

I'm not recommending that the song should hurl this mild insult across the Charles river, you understand, I'm just pointing out that it would be a stylistically good use of complement preposing.

But to have Northeastern we adore just sitting there as the last line of a song that is all about Northeastern, where there is no contrast at all, implied or explicit, is bathos at its worst. It's utterly and profoundly lame. It has to go.

President Aoun, this won't be the most popular thing you do as president, but the tough decisions are best made right at the start. You have to ditch that song, and ditch it now. You don't need a song that reads as if it was written by Yoda. I'll come back for the next Northeastern Alumni Night at the Boston Pops next June, and I want to hear different lyrics to that song. (The young woman who sang it was great, by the way. Keep her.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 2, 2006 10:23 AM