November 22, 2007

A Thanksgiving discussion

When columnists and feature writers need to find something to say about a seasonal topic, they naturally turn to linguistics, and sometimes even to linguists. For example, Annie Groer in the Washington Post ("Th(angst)giving", 11/22/2007) quotes Deborah Tannen at length about how "different conversational styles among families and friends can create problems", and also about the problems of "adult children returning home and 'always feeling 12 years old'".

That headline writer's clever interpolation of angst into Thanks- feeds right into John McWhorter's essay in the New York Sun ("THANKS-giving", 11/21/2007), which starts:

You know how you can tell that we don't truly think of Thanksgiving as being about thankfulness anymore? Which syllable most of us put the accent on. Most people say thanks-GIVING. But think about it -- you don't say horse-RACING; you say HORSE-racing. BABY-sitting, not baby-SITTING. [...]

The accent has changed as our concept of the holiday has. THANKS-giving would convey that we were giving thanks. When we say thanks-GIVING we are just uttering a string of sounds only vaguely connected to what the words thanks and giving mean. It's rather like ice cream: we don't really conceive of the stuff as "iced cream;" in our heads it's more like a single word "eyescream."

John is a linguist himself, and a member of the Language Log family. And the second most important Thanksgiving tradition, after the sacramental meal itself, is animated discussions among family members about everything from football games to stuffing recipes. So I'm going to take up brother John's point and run it back the other way.

I agree that thanksgiving has an unexpected stress pattern, and I agree that this is somehow connected to its status as word whose meaning is not entirely predictable from the meanings of its parts. But this isn't enough to explain the stress shift -- there's no stress shift in other lexicalized compounds like shoemaker, foot-soldier, cock-fighting, etc.. And whatever casued the stress to shift in thanksgiving, it happened before the Thanksgiving holiday became an American ritual in the middle of the 19th century, and it also affected people in England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia and other places that don't participate in our turkey/stuffing/cranberry-sauce culture.

English-language writers have been leaving the space out of thanksgiving since the 16th century, suggesting that the compound was already becoming lexicalized even if the meaning still had more to do with giving thanks than with eating turkey and watching football. From the OED:

1539 BIBLE (Great) 1 Tim. iv. 4 For all the creatures of God are good, and nothing to be refused, yf it be receaued with thankesgeuynge.
1535 COVERDALE Ps. xxxix. [xl.] 3 He hath put a new songe in my mouth, euen a thankesgeuynge vnto oure God.
1641 Nicholas Papers (Camden) 10 It was resolved that there shalbe on ye 7th of September next a publique thanksgiving for this good accord betweene ye 2 nacions.

But how can we tell what the stress pattern was, in those days before voice recording? It's possible that some early dictionaries mark the stress -- but Samuel Johnson's 1755 opus doesn't even have thank or thanks in it, much less thanksgiving, and I don't have any other early dictionaries on my shelf. In any case, a better way is to look at the way the word is placed in metered verse.

Unfortunately, however, the traditional norms of accentual-syllabic verse in English mean that we can't use binary meters (iambic or trochaic) for this purpose. In such verse, thanksgiving has always been set with the second syllable in a strong position.

We can see this in these lines of iambic pentameter written by Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699) , from Psyche, Canto XIV, "The Death of Love":

      .  # .   #  .     #  .   #  . #
1045 Disloyal Murmurs; Pulpit Villanies;
      .      # .  #       .    #  .     # . #
1046 Curs'd Holy Leagues; and zealous Profanations;
      .   #  .    #       .    # .    # .    #
1047 Sin-fatning Fasts; Thanksgiving solemn Lyes;
      .    #  . #     . #   .    # .  #
1048 Bold Sacrilege; rebellious Reformations;

And some time in the early 19th century Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) wrote in the same meter:

26 He knows (the Spirit that in secret sees,
27 Of whose omniscient and all-spreading Love
28 Aught to implore were impotence of mind)
29 That my mute thoughts are sad before his throne,
     . #       .   #  .    # .    #    .   #
30 Prepar'd, when he his healing ray vouchsafes,
     .    # .    #   .   #     .    #  .   #
31 Thanksgiving to pour forth with lifted heart,
32 And praise Him Gracious with a Brother's Joy!

The LION database offers us 1202 examples of  the word thanksgiving in English poetry, and a significant fraction of them are in such iambic meters. While I've only checked a small fraction of those, I'm confident that all will show the same alignment, which is consistent with the modern pronunciation. But in fact this gives us no evidence at all about the relative stress of the first two syllables. We can see this by observing that in iambic verse, the same metrical alignment will apply to compounds like horse-racing and psalm-singing:

Thus Walter C. Smith, 1902, "Provost Chivas":

205 And he must choose between this chance
206 And being led a bonny dance,
207 Through courts of Law, for crimes and debts,---
208 Hame-sucken, stouthrief, common theft,
209 Smuggling, and heavy claims he left
     .   #   .   #    .     # .    #
210 For gambling and horse-racing bets.

John Wilson (1785-1854), "The City of the Plague":

252 Ha! thou'rt a scrupulous robber! and the sound
    .    #     .    #  .       #    .       # .  #
253 Of these psalm-singing, shrill-voiced choristers

So what good is the metrical evidence? Well, we need to look at ternary meters -- ones with anapestic or dactylic feet -- where in principle either the first or second syllable of these three-syllable compounds can be aligned with the ictus (main beat) of the foot. That seems to be because words like racing are happy to fit in the two weak positions -- but whatever the reason, both alignments of words like horse-racing are found.

For example, in the anapestic poem "A Case of Conscience" by John Godrey Saxe (1816-1887), we get one of each. (I've omitted the full scansion of the relevant lines, and only indicated the alignment of the crucial word by using boldface for the ictus syllable. That doesn't necessarily imply how the word should be read, merely how it scans, i.e. aligns with the meter.)

1 Two College Professors,---I won't give their names
2 (Call one of them Jacob, the other one James),---
3 Two College Professors, who ne'er in their lives
4 Had wandered before from the care of their wives,
5 One day in vacation, when lectures were through,
6 And teachers and students had nothing to do,
7 Took it into their noddles to go to the Races,
8 To look at the nags, and examine their paces,
9 And find out the meaning of "bolting" and "baiting,"
10 And the (clearly preposterous) practice of "waiting,"
11 And "laying long odds," and the other queer capers
12 Which cram the reports that appear in the papers;
13 And whether a "stake" is the same as a post?
14 And how far a "heat" may resemble a roast?
15 And whether a "hedge," in the language of sport,
16 Is much like the plain agricultural sort?
17 And if "making a book" is a thing which requires
18 A practical printer? and who are the buyers?---
19 Such matters as these,---very proper to know,---
20 And no thought of betting, induced them to go
21 To the Annual Races, which then were in force
22 (Horse-racing, in fact, is a matter of course,
23 Apart from the pun) in a neighboring town;
24 And so, as I said, the Professors went down.
61 The race being over, quoth Jacob, "I see
62 My wager is forfeit; to that I agree
63 The Fifty is yours, by the technical rules
64 Observed, I am told, by these horse-racing fools;
65 But then, as a Christian,---I'm sorry to say it,---
66 My Conscience, you know, won't allow me to pay it!"

[It's relevant, but secondary, that this matches the effect of the stress-shift in pre-nominal modifiers known colloquially as the "thirteen men" rule, after the stress shift in pairs like "The answer is thirteen" vs. 'Thirteen men on a dead man's chest".)

If we check the alignment in ternary verse of such words -- compounds combining a monosyllable with a trochee -- we find that the ictus falls on the first syllable most of the time. A nice example is a lyric by the pseudonymous "Claudero", entitled "On St. Crispin's day, October 25th, 1763", in which the word shoemaker occurs five times, four of them with first-syllable ictus and one with second-syllable ictus:

1 Come let us prepare,
2 Jolly hearts ev'ry where,
3 Each shoemaker sing and be merry,
4 Let mirth now abound,
5 And bumpers go round,
6 Of Claret, Champaign, and Canary.
19 We still bear in mind,
20 And show to mankind,
21 Our loyalty by a procession,
22 To Crispin the great,
23 Who left kingly state,
24 And liv'd in a shoemaker's station.
37 The King on the throne,
38 The Prince too his son,
39 Without our Craft's friendly assistance,
40 They bare-foot might go,
41 Thro' frost and thro' snow,
42 If shoemakers were at a distance.
61 Our very great care,
62 Is to pleasure the fair,
63 Whom shoemakers fit always neatly,
64 Our sweet-hearts and wives,
65 We love as our lives,
66 And by them are loved compleatly.

67 To sum up the whole,
68 Let us Crispin extol,
69 And be of his virtues partakers;
70 Then all will applaud,
71 And sing loud as Claud,
72 The fame and great worth of shoemakers.

The same is true for compounds of the same form written with hyphens. Here's Charles MacKay's mid-19th-century "My Heart's in the Highlands":

9 My heart's in the Highlands, the long summer day
10 Breathing the health-giving breeze on the brae,
11 And braving the tempests that gather below;
12 My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Or Ambrose Bierce's "In His Hand":

1 De Young (in Chicago the story is told)
2 "Took his life in his hand," like a warrior bold,
3 And stood before Buckley---who thought him behind,
4 For Buckley, the man-eating monster is blind.
5 "Count fairly the ballots!" so rang the demand
6 Of the gallant De Young, with his life in his hand.

Of John Betjeman's 1958 "The Sandemanian Meeting-House in Highbury Quadrant"

13 Away from the barks and the shouts and the greetings,
14 Psalm-singing over and love-lunch done,

There are a few examples with second-syllable ictus, like this one in Dugald Ferguson's 1912 "Verses Addressed to My Brother on Exchanging Boots"

17 But when I was out, I declare---
18 Cock-fighting this fairly confutes---
19 To leave me your shabby old pair
20 In lieu of my best Sunday boots.

21 I have read of the wars of the Turk---
22 Their slaughters, their sacks and pursuits;
23 But whoever heard tell of such work---
24 To rob a poor man of his boots?

But such examples are distinctly in the minority, amounting to a tenth of the settings or even fewer. When we look at thanksgiving in ternary meters, the situation is completely different. A quick scan of LION turns up dozens if not hundreds of cases -- I'll spare you most of the 30 or so that I've looked at -- and every one of the examples that I've seen so far has second-syllable ictus.

This is true of American poems referring to our secular holiday, starting with Lydia Maria Francis Child's 1854 "The New-England Boy's Song About Thanksgiving Day":

1 Over the river, and through the wood,
2 To grandfather's house we go;
3 The horse knows the way,
4 To carry the sleigh,
5 Through the white and drifted snow.

6 Over the river, and through the wood,
7 To grandfather's house away!
8 We would not stop
9 For doll or top,
10 For 't is Thanksgiving day.
21 Over the river, and through the wood,
22 To have a first-rate play---
23 Hear the bells ring
24 Ting a ling ding,
25 Hurra for Thanksgiving day!

But it's also true for much earlier British lyrics, such as Alexander Brome's 1661 "A new Diurnal of passages more Exactly drawn up then heretofore":

71 His Excellence had Chines and Rams-heads for a present,
72 And his Councel of War had Woodcock and Pheasant.
73 But Ven had 5000. Calves heads all in carts,
74 To nourish his Men and to chear up their hearts.
75 This made them so valiant that that very day,
76 They had taken the Town but for running away.
77 'Twas Ordered this day, that thanksgiving be made,
78 To the Round-heads in Sermons, for their beefe and their bread.

Or "A Thanksgiving Hymn" by John Byrom (1692-1763):

1 O come, let us sing to the Lord a new Song,
2 And praise Him to whom all our Praises belong;
3 While we enter His Temple with Gladness and Joy,
4 Let a Psalm of Thanksgiving our Voices employ;
5 O come, to His Name let us joyfully sing;
6 For the Lord is a great and omnipotent King:
7 By His Word were the Heav'ns and the Host of them made,
8 And of all the round World the Foundation He laid!

Or "Britons Awake" by Joseph Mather (1737-1804 )

11 He stretched the last link to collect a vile crew,
12 To render thanksgiving where stripes were most due.
13 He rallied his forces his cause to maintain,
14 At Bang-beggar Hall he assembled his train,

Or Bernard Barton's 1837 "The Morning is Breaking":

25 The stars in their courses
26 Now marshal their forces;
27 The moon in pale splendour walks up the blue sky;
28 While Philomel's numbers,
29 'Mid earth's placid slumbers,
30 Seem lauds of thanksgiving ascending on high.

31 Oh! thus, when stars glisten,
32 With none near to listen,
33 Should spirits awaking their melodies raise
34 To Him who sleeps never,
35 But merits for ever
36 Glad songs of thanksgiving, and honour, and praise.

There are many cases where it would be easy to adjust the setting of thanksgiving to put the ictus on the first syllable. Thus William Canton's 1887 "Christmas Eve" mixes binary and ternary feet, as anapestic meters often do -- thus:

    .     .  #    .    .   #  .    .   #   .   #
13 Near the rails of the chancel the crib was seen,
    #     .     #  .     .    #  .    #
14 Roofed and clustered with winter-green;

and so it would have been easy for him to replace

46 The joy of that birth, the thanksgiving of song.


       *The joy of that birth, the thanksgiving song.

But he didn't.

Likewise in Coleridge's dactylic hexameter "Hymn to the Earth",  thanksgiving is set with second-syllable ictus:

12 Into my being thou murmurest joy, and tenderest sadness
13 Shedd'st thou, like dew, on my heart, till the joy and the heavenly sadness
14 Pour themselves forth from my heart in tears, and the hymn of thanksgiving.

He could well have chosen to write something like

*Pour themselves forth from my heart in tears, and the thanksgiving music

But he didn't. I think that it should be possible to use thanksgiving with first-syllable ictus in ternary verse in English -- if you find an example, please tell me -- but so far, after looking at dozens of poems from the mid 17th-century onwards, written by poets from the British Isles and Australia as well as the U.S. and Canada, I've come up empty. This is in striking contrast to the treatment of words like shoemaker and psalm-singing, for which first-syllable ictus in ternary verse is overwhelmingly more common.

I conclude that thanksgiving has generally had second-syllable main stress in English at least since the 17th century. I don't know why this shift happened -- but I believe that we can rule out John McWhorter's theory that the stress shift occurred because of recent developments in an American cultural practice that was proposed by Sara Josepha Hale and the Boston Ladies' Magazine in 1827, and established by Abraham Lincoln after the battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

On the other hand, Sara and Abe deserve credit for lots of other good things, including the meal we'll be sharing later today, and the tradition of friendly debate on the conversational topics that we structure our lives around. So John, do you think that the Eagles have a chance to keep it close against the Patriots?

Posted by Mark Liberman at November 22, 2007 10:49 AM