Friday, November 18, 2005

The Impersonal Construction

Three posts ago, I asked about the "Me reweth" construction in this Middle English poem:

Nou goth sonne under wode --
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre --
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and the.

Readers will recall my questions:

I assume that the Middle English means something like "It rueth me," but that doesn't quite work for me and also doesn't quite work for the poem. Or did the verb in "Me reweth" express a middle voice, something like a reflexive? Yet why then the "-eth" ending, which belongs to the third person singular form?
In a comment, Kevin "Big Ho" Kim noted the similarity to the Shakespearean "methinks" and promised to refer me to an expert friend of his. By email, Kevin kept his promise, notifying me of the existence of a Professor Kara Doyle (any relation to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?), who teaches in the English Department of Union College, in Schenectady, New York. I emailed her, and received this prompt reply:

In Middle English you have a few verbs used like this, especially in poetry. It [i.e., "Me reweth"] means "I rue" or "I regret." This is called an impersonal construction. Chaucer does the same thing in "Complaint to Pity": "Me lakketh but my deth and then my bere," which means "I lack only my death and then my bier." There's a simple overview of Middle English grammar (actually, Chaucerian grammar, but it's a good overview for ME) at the Harvard Chaucer website, if you are interested.

Another fine resource is the Oxford English Dictionary, available online, which will give you the history of the word from its earliest recorded uses forward to today, including any now-obsolete meanings. For instance, I looked up the verb "rue" and discovered that this impersonal use goes all the way back to King Alfred.
This is very helpful, especially the link to Harvard's Chaucerian Middle English site. I'll have to find that online Oxford English Dictionary and link to it. Ah, here it is. Hmmm . . . subscription required. Well, I do have the two-volume set that has, in miniature, eight pages of the original on each page, along with a magnifying glass to aid the optically challenged, but I didn't manage to find what Professor Doyle found. I'll check again when I'm next in my office.

I'll have to do some more research into this "impersonal construction" to make sure that I completely understand it. My first assumption, noted above, was that "Me reweth" meant something like "It reweth me," which seems to have been about right, but I still puzzle a bit over the line "Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and the," for the implied, singular "It" (i.e., "It reweth me") clashes with the explicit, plural "thi sone and the."

But maybe the impersonal construction simply works that way, always using the verb's third person singular form.


At 8:14 AM, Blogger Michael Gilleland said...

Impersonal verbs are common in Latin (licet, libet, placet, iuvat, etc.). One (paenitet) is synonymous with reweth. Allen & Greenough's New Latin Grammar for Schools and Colleges: "Many verbs, from their meaning, appear only in the third person singular, the infinitive, and the gerund. These are called Impersonal Verbs, as having no personal subject."

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

This might return us to Zen Wizard's speculation about a Latin influence:

"The reflective tense, if that is in fact what it is, might bespeak of an early Romantic (Latin) influence on English."

But instead of reflexive, we'd need to investigate the impersonal.

Or perhaps what we're looking at in Middle English is derived from some common Indo-European category of verbal construction.

Something to keep me busy . . .

At 12:44 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

I'm glad to see that Kara provided some answers, and I wish you luck as your quest continues.


At 7:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, as you'll see in the very next post, the quest has continued into obscure and densely thicketed territory.


Post a Comment

<< Home