Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Whither Ancient Adverbs?

We've been doing a bit of seasonal reading (namely, the four Gospels of the New Testament) in the two editions of these works that grace the shelves of the Lounge Library — the King James Version of the Bible, and the Richmond Lattimore translation of the New Testament (see below). It's what we call comfort reading, not undertaken in order to acquire information but rather to enjoy the beauty of the language. This time through we noticed something that had escaped us before: the KJV makes regular use of the English directional adverbs that we now think of as formal, literary or poetic — that is, hither, thither, whither, and yonder — but Lattimore, an accomplished poet in his own right, and ever sensitive to the cadences of language, does not: he's updated them all to the more prosaic, all-purposes modern equivalents: here, there, and where, plus the odd preposition or submodifier where required. Take, for example:

Luke 17:37 :

And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord? And he said unto them, Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together. (KJV)

And they answered and said to him: Where, Lord? He said to them: Where the body is, there will the eagles be gathered. (Lattimore)

Matthew 17:20 :

And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you. (KJV)

He said to them: Because of your little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as large as a grain of mustard, you will say to this mountain: Move from here to there; and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you. (Lattimore)

This got us to thinking about why modern English has largely abandoned these ancient and formerly very useful and frequent words.

Hither, thither, and whither are in an exclusive club to which a small minority of English words belong: they are all attested before 900 C.E. Yonder came along slightly later (14th century) though its component yond (also seen in beyond) was also used pre-900, and its -er bit was added on the pattern of hither, etc. These words were current and unremarkable in English when the King James Version was being translated and are scattered throughout it. They're also much in evidence in the English of the day — witness Shakespeare, who uses them all to good effect:

Who sent you hither? Wherefore do you come? Richard III [I, 4]

There will we mount, and thither walk on foot. The Taming of the Shrew [IV, 3]

What counsel give you? Whither shall we fly? Henry VI, Part III [II, 3]

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? Romeo and Juliet [II, 2]

Though Shakespeare undoubtedly used all of these words simply because they did their semantic jobs, it was a felicity that they all slot so perfectly into lines of iambic pentameter.

We're on the same page with H.W. Fowler (in his article on whence and whither) when he says:

The value of these subordinates of where for lucidity and conciseness seems so obvious that no one who appreciates those qualities can see such help being discarded without a pang of regret.

He goes on, however, to argue that any attempt to restore them to their former glory should be avoided, and attributes their disappearance to "the genius of language" which, he says,

actually likes the preposition at the end that wiseacres have conspired to discourage, and thinks 'Where are you coming to?' more quickly comprehensible in moments of threatened collision than 'Whither are you coming?'

We don't pretend to have that dependable access to the "genius of language" that would enable us to analyze the disappearance of these words so confidently, but Fowler's take on it is certainly consistent with the trend in English generally, which is toward simplification of expression and loss of inflections. These trends are far more pronounced in the transitions from old to middle, and from middle to modern English, but even in modern English (of which all these adverbs are card-carrying members), the simplifying trend continues. Does it "dumb down" English to reassign the distinctions that were the province of these words to commoner words, even if you need to use more of them? We don't think so; and just as we appreciate Shakespeare's faultless metrical feet, we also admire the impact of "Don't go there!" and find it far more to the point than "Go not thither!"

The current uses of all these ancient words indicate another trend that might be attributable to "the genius of language," and that is its ability to find dignified retirement jobs for largely obsolete words: jobs that enable the words to proclaim "I'm not dead yet" while not requiring them to undertake a great deal of exercise to maintain that status. All of these words keep each other company in fixed phrases like "hither and yon" and "hither and thither." This is about the only thing that thither has to do anymore, but the other words occupy a few more posts: Hither has a role in the adjective come-hither, used attributively for come-hither look/stare/smile/gesture/eyes. Whither has secured a niche in headline English: Search on it in Google News and you'll get a smattering of headlines in the form "Whither X?", such as "Whither the US Dollar?" or "Whither the Investing Class?" They ask, in short-hand form, "Where is X headed?"

Yonder, in a somewhat different class than the others, survives in a number of fixed phrases such as "down yonder," "wild blue yonder," and  "yonder lies X." Unlike the other words, it is also still genuinely a demonstrative adjective and adverb in many dialects of English — for example, in rural dialects of the southern half of the US. Most such "genuine" usages of yonder, however, are verbal. In print, yonder's main job at present seems to be as a self-conscious register marker, a way for writers to telegraph to their audiences that they're going to lapse into colloquialism and folksiness.

Richmond Lattimore (1906-1984) was a poet and translator — chiefly of Greek classical literature, but his translation of the later Greek of the New Testament has all the virtues of his other work: scholarly and literary, without a proselytizing agenda:

We enjoy spotting fads and trends in English over the centuries by comparing Biblical translations from different historical periods here:

Shakespeare's use of these adverbs (or any other words, for that matter), can be quickly gathered here:

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 1st 2008, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Rosalind R.
A (relatively) modern use of hither and thither is found in a poem I have been unable to forget (I've tried!) by Samuel Hoffenstein, from his collection "Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing"

You buy some flowers for your table
You tend them, tenderly as you're able
You fetch them water from hither and thither
What thanks do you get for it all? They wither.
Monday December 1st 2008, 10:02 AM
Comment by: Calvin H.
No, not dumbing down, just being fast and pragmatic, while at the same time, encouraging a 'tin ear.' 'Where' is Mondrian; 'whither' is Claude Lorrain. We have lost the rich tactility of books these days for screens, and long before that, lost the feel of type face striking and indenting a surface of paper. In both instances, we've lost the raw feeling of books and covers. Have you ever lifted an old book up and smelled it? The resonance of age has meaning in us. Humans have such incredible emotional receptors waiting to we fed and watered, and as a species these days, they wither before puberty. My take is that whither and thither enrich in that they are poetically charged with wonder in ways here and there can never be.
Monday December 1st 2008, 6:26 PM
Comment by: Delbert
Jefferson in Declaration of Independence:

sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance

to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands

all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed
Monday December 1st 2008, 7:52 PM
Comment by: Julio P. (Somerville, MA)
It Was terrific.
Tuesday December 2nd 2008, 2:35 AM
Comment by: Clark H.
Anyone know how Lattimore handled Quo Vadis?
Tuesday December 2nd 2008, 7:18 AM
Comment by: Talley Sue H. (New York, NY)
oh, fun!

I'm the decidedly amateur choir director at my small congregation. We have two Korean members in the choir, and I sometimes think the reason they are IN choir is to learn all the words in the hymns we sing.

I end up feeling like a dictionary--meaning, connotation, other usages, etc.

This week, we started practicing a song for Christmas Eve: "See in Yonder Manger Low."

And Soo-ja asked, "what does 'yonder' mean."

Now I'm going to keep an eye out for hither and whither.
Tuesday December 2nd 2008, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
The poetic words of yonder years have become nearly extinct in our modern lifestyle that demands precise language for fear of being misquoted. The advent of the cell phone and text messaging is introducing a new system of shorthand that has no room for even maintaining precision of words and their proper usage in everyday conversation. The art of expressing one's feelings and emotions is the victim of todays communication methods. When 90% or more of all email messages are fwds, it leaves one to wonder if anyone has the ability to communicate their own opinions or ideas.
Sunday December 7th 2008, 9:24 AM
Comment by: Meical (Cardiff United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
And don't forget whence, thence and hence!
Sunday December 7th 2008, 12:26 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I thought about including these, Meical, because they make a nice symmetrical set with hither/thither/whither and here/there/where, but including them would have made the article a bit long, and hence/thence/whence have not disappeared from usage to the same degree as hither/thither/whither. I reckon this is because hence/thence/whence have some uses causal and temporal clauses, in addition to the spatial ones that the other words are pretty much limited to. Hither/thither/whither have also not survived in many compounds (we seem to have only hitherto in active use today), whereas the other words have teamed up more successfully with other function words: henceforth, whereupon, therefore, etc.

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