March 28, 2008


The University of Glasgow's Faculty of Arts promulgated in 2002 a policy (see it here) that apparently relates to transfer of credit from foreign universities. But what it says, even in the main header to the page (and I thank Judith Blair for bringing this to my attention), is that it concerns "Grades received furth of Glasgow". What the hell is furth?

The answer is that it is yet another English preposition that I had never previously encountered in my entire life.

So I am still not done with learning the prepositions of my native language, for heaven's sake, despite being (i) a current resident of Scotland (and in fact Scottish born); (ii) a native and lifelong speaker of English; (iii) well acquainted after long experience with English in the UK, the USA, and Australia; (iv) a voracious reader since the age of three; (v) a Professor of General Linguistics in the very distinguished Linguistics & English Language department at the University of Edinburgh; (vi) first author of the chapter on prepositions in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and most important of all, (vii) a Senior Contributing Editor for Language Log.

Both Mark Liberman and I were surprised to come upon any English preposition that we didn't know (neither of us had run into outwith until quite recently). But another one? This is more than just interesting. This is positively embarassing. Where have these regional prepositions being lurking during all the earlier part of my life?

What furth of Glasgow means "away from or outside of Glasgow": the policy involves grades assigned by students spending time away, typically at foreign universities during a year abroad. So furth takes an of-phrase, in the way that out usually does, and outside optionally does.

Middle English expert Meg Laing points out to me that furth has the same etymology as the intransitive preposition forth. (Yes, I know, the dictionaries all call it an adverb. All published dictionaries are wrong about where to draw the line between prepositions and adverbs. See Chapter 7 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.)

Though far from moribund in contemporary Standard English, forth is not common, and occurs largely in fixed phrases. More than a third of the 589 occurrences in the Wall Street Journal corpus (199 occurrences) involve the fixed phrase back and forth. Another 81 are in instances of the idiomatic and so forth, synonymous with "and so on". The others occur as complement of verb lexemes (as usual I will indicate lexemes by citing plain forms in bold italics), and they have a very uneven frequency distribution: there are 103 occurrences of set forth, 63 of put forth, and 36 of bring forth, and the others occur at much lower rates.

We find hold forth (an idiom meaning "offer opinions"), come forth, and call forth about a dozen times each, and then a large number of other verb lexemes occurring with forth rather more rarely than that, between one and eight times each. (For the record, the other verb lexemes with forth as complement are blare, blossom, body (which was a new one to me, but it occurs twice), break, bubble, burst, conjure, drive, go, gush, hiss, hold, issue, jerk, offer, pour, sally (a verb that now only occurs with forth, and yes, the comic strip Sally Forth is named after this idiom), send, set, spring, stand, step, summon, throw, thrust, thrust, tumble, and venture.)

What is relevant in the present context is that there is not a single occurrence of forth of NP meaning "away from NP". That is the development, apparently now limited to Scotland, that led to furth of Glasgow. It was once paralleled in other dialects: the Oxford English Dictionary cites examples from 1500, such as Whan your mayster is forth of towne ("when your master is out of town") where forth is spelled with an o but takes the of phrase. But it describes forth of as "Now only poet. or rhetorical, and only in lit. sense expressive of motion from within a place." The only sign of furth is as an early alternate spelling, and never with of. (Note, though, that as Jim Smith points out to me, all modern English dialects have preserved the comparative and superlative forms further and furthest.)

So that was my latest preposition-learning episode. I wonder when I will next encounter an English preposition that I have never seen before.

[Update: The mail server at Language Log Plaza is fighting a losing battle against the tide of incoming mail offering variations on the phrase "furth of the Firth of Forth". If people would like to stop mailing these in now, that would be nice. Thank you.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 28, 2008 04:46 AM