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Word Tasting Note: "Hark"

On his Sesquiotica blog, writer, editor, and designer James Harbeck has a regular feature that he calls "Word Tasting Notes." "Words are delicious and intoxicating," Harbeck writes. "So why not taste them like a fine wine?" Here, he delves into the history of a word we frequently hear (or mishear) during the holiday season: hark.

There are a lot of classic songs sung at this time of the year. But the singers don't always seem to pay all that much attention to what they're singing — to mark their words, as it were. Or else they hear the words and try to make sense of them according to syntax they're more used to. "God rest you merry, gentlemen" (using an archaic sense of rest meaning "keep" or "make") is interpreted as "God rest you, merry gentlemen." And more often you hear it with you altered to ye because it seems more old-style — but ye was always the nominative; you was originally just the accusative... so when ye was in use, it would not have been used here.

And, of course, "Hark! The herald angels sing" is often misunderstood as "Hark the herald, angels sing." Not that those who read it that way can necessarily say exactly what hark the herald means. Is it some combination of, say, ring the bells and what the heck? Or is it that hark is taken as transitive, so that rather than saying hark to the herald or harken to the herald (or hearken to the herald), it is hark the herald (sort of like how some people will, with the awkwardness that comes from dysfluency in formal English, put assist you do something rather than assist you in doing something)?

What does hark mean, anyway? Well... listen. Pay attention. Give ear to. It has a nice, sharp, commanding sound to it — not the weaker liquid and hiss of listen, but the military force you get with march and charge and other orders barked out starkly. It's not the mere inclination of the head but the sudden pricking up of the ears. When you hark, you hear and ken.

Which reminds me: hark but hearken? Certainly the words are related — harken is another spelling for hearken. But why is it not heark? Perhaps because it would look too much like it's pronounced /hirk/? Yet we have no problem with heart and (sometimes) none with hearth. Is it just simpler to follow the the pattern of mark, bark, dark? (Hmm... Mark! Hark to the bark in the dark!)

Well, yes, it's simpler to follow the pattern of bark and dark, which came up from Old English as beorc and deorc, then went into Middle English as berk and derk, and arrived in Modern English as bark and dark. Hark had just the same route: OE heorcian to ME herken to ModE harken and hark. So the real question is, Why hearken? Why not just harken?

And the answer seems to be along the same lines as why God rest ye rather than God rest you: we have these ideas about what is an older, more classic, more formal style — we prefer what linguists call the more marked form (that means the more exceptional one). Just as many people will try to emulate older English by adding eth randomly to verbs or tacking on e to nouns here and there, and will assume thou is more formal (in its time it was actually the familiar term, equivalent to French tu and German du), so they will also go for ye rather than you and will assume that anything with a silent e must be classier. Add to that the force of analogy — with heart and heartening and hearth and (in spelling) hear — and you have sufficient force to make the variant spelling seem more correct.

So why not heark? Perhaps without the en it lacked enough sense of formality; perhaps it was better established in common usage. Or perhaps it just didn't make it into the dictionary... you won't have trouble finding some examples of that spelling.

But, really, we can't always expect archaic usages and modern singers to be reconciled. Especially when more current usages aren't always heard correctly either. As in the fourth line of our song du jour, where "God and sinners reconciled" is sometimes heard as "God and sinners wrecked in style." Well, if we're going to wreck the songs, at least they'll be wrecked in style... Like many a holiday reveler.


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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday December 29th 2011, 11:04 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Thank you, James! You mention "ye" being used instead of "you"; as I understand it, there's another common misunderstanding about the word. In Old English, there were two different letters that were used for the "th" sound. One was the theta, which was unvoiced (think, thick, throw) and one was the eth, which was voiced (this, either, they). The letter eth looked a lot like our letter Y, so in OE the word "the" would have been pronounced as we pronounce it, but to our modern eyes it looks like "ye" and that is how most of us pronounce it. In our desire to "antique" words, we often add an "e" to the word that follows "ye", producing "Ye Olde Bookshoppe", "Ye Olde Towne Faire" or, presumably, "Ye Olde Anglophyle."

That's my story, but I'm not determined to stick to it; if I'm mistaken about any or all of it, please jump right in and let me know - I do want to speake ye olde truthe!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday December 29th 2011, 11:49 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
A Wonderful presentation.This column demonstrated another typical way that we could and should think about word/words before selecting a correct one.
A similar type of mentality will be very effective in improving other prominent languages. It's just an opinion.
I enjoyed the core message of the writing.
Thursday December 29th 2011, 12:09 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
Interesting. It is a knotty question of why "hearken" isn't just "harken". Personally, I'd always thought of "hark" as more of a "HEY YOU!! PAY ATTENTION!" sort of word. Like James mentioned it being more of a military word...good way to describe it.
And the description of the transition through Middle English and all that...wonderfully accurate and extremely helpful.
And by the way, Kristine F., excellent point. People do add the "e" to the end of words to make them sound old.
I was at a Medieval Faire (there you go, example right of the top) with my friend E., and you wouldn't believe how many "Ye Olde ____________e"'s there were. The Ye Olde Canoe Ride was there, and I was thankful they didn't put an e on the end of Ride. Ridee? Too confusing.
The highlight of the Faire for two girls we were watching was getting to eat a Rat on a Stick (teriyaki chicken on a stick). Ye Olde Rat on a Sticke? Weird but true-folks add on an e to make it medieval.
Saturday December 31st 2011, 2:40 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Recently I heard Garrison Keillor quote a poem on his nightly "Writer's Almanac" that is relevant to this article. The poem was Gary Johnson's "December" about a parent and a little girl singing carols in dark streets some place with snow and cold. It concludes with the following words:
Saturday December 31st 2011, 2:40 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Recently I heard Garrison Keillor quote a poem on his nightly "Writer's Almanac" that is relevant to this article. The poem was Gary Johnson's "December" about a parent and a little girl singing carols in dark streets some place with snow and cold. It concludes with the following words:
Saturday December 31st 2011, 2:52 PM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
Oops. I touched the wrong key and left you hanging. So briefly, for the context, the poem "December" by Gary Johnson is a scene of carolers singing, especially one adult and child. It concludes with these words:
There is much we do not understand
And my hopes and fears are met
In this small singer holding onto my hand
Onward we go, faithfully, into the dark
And are there angel hovering overhead? Hark.
Sunday January 1st 2012, 1:29 AM
Comment by: James H. (Toronto Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments, y'all! Kristine, you have it largely right; the letter thorn (þ) was used for "th" (along with eth (ð)) in Old English, but continental influence led to its gradual replacement with th (and eth, well, just went). It persisted in þe and þat, but when movable type was brought in, the type was made on the continent, where they didn't have those letters, so the closest-looking letter, y, was substituted. Often (and you will see this on old tombstones too, under the influence of the type) "the" was written as a y with an e above it, and "that" as a y with a t above it.

Icelandic still uses thorn and eth, and is more consistent than Old English generally was in keeping thorn voiceless and eth voiced.

The silent final letter e was in fact often added wantonly in the Middle English period, by copyists paid by the letter and by typesetters who used it to make lines fit better. So the habit of sticking it on willy-nilly is, it happens, something of a reflection of a former actual practice. Which doesn't really make it less inane in my eyes, but so it goes.

I have a longer piece on the history of English that covers these sorts of things; you might enjoy it: http://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2009/01/09/an-appreciation-of-english-a-language-in-motion/ . Also, on the history of English spelling and its increasing polymporphous perversity: http://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/whats_up_with_english_spelling/
Sunday January 1st 2012, 4:29 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
James, thank you for the information - it's fascinating, especially the part about the final "e" being added by copyists and typesetters! Their reasons for doing it seem pretty silly, but now that I think about it, I suppose we modern-day humans (including me) often have equally ridiculous reasons for doing things!

I wish all of you VT readers a Happy New Year, full of words that surprise, confound, intrigue, entertain, inform, console, amuse and delight you!

The Happy Quibbler

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