Wednesday, 24 January 2018

But nobody says potahto, Missouri update

In the 2018 Oscar nominations, the presenter (an African-American woman) used the schwa ending (often transcribed as "-uh" by the IPA-challenged). My ears pricked up, because ever since a Letter From America I heard about 30 years ago I had believed Alastair Cooke's shibboleth,
He said that both were right in different contexts, The state was one (either /ɪ/ or /ə/ in the last syllable) and the river was the other (either /ə/ or /ɪ/). I thought the nominations would clear this up.
As a 2012 article in the New York Times says:
In 1907, a resolution introduced in the state House to establish the “only true pronunciation as that received by the native Indians” — a third way, Mih-SOO-rih — failed by voice vote[:]
1907 NYT report of failed vote
"S" in the two syllables in which it occurs"...? Two syllables? Did the word syllable mean something different in the American English  of  1907? [Aha, maybe it‘s a matter of syllabification: "Mis/sou/ri". Anyway....]
But my choice of the word shibboleth was intentional. As the Collins Dictionary says

The original shibboleth was a test word, used for separating Them (the chaff) from Us (the wheat). That Gileadite name for wheat was a pre-Christian version of Beg pardon, I'm soiling the doilies. But in this case there is no Them and no Us. Judging from the many discussions found by Google (more than 2 million – I haven't checked every one, but I think I've got the gist), the difference is mainly geographic. As that NYT article says,
Some believe it started as an east-west split, with St. Louis favoring “ee” and Kansas City “uh.” Popular belief holds that the southern half of the state is “Missourah,” with Highway 70 serving as a sort of Mason-Dixon line, and still others contend that “Missouree” is city, “Missouruh” is country.
Given this geographic/cultural split, there's a tendency for one speaker (often in a single speech event) to use both. And, given this alternation, there's a tendency for the chatterati to try to justify both on esoteric grounds of usage (as Alastair Cooke did – angels and pinheads spring to mind).

But next time that nominations presenter spoke, she flipped and used /ɪ/ or maybe even /i:/. Before the change there was some off-mic hilarity between her and her (Caucasian) fellow-presenter. Perhaps, as the schwa pronunciation had been favoured by President Obama, she had decided to use the version preferred by the wh.... no, that doesn't work. Many white folks unashamedly (indeed proudly) use the schwa pronunciation. I suspect that in Trump's America the down-home version is going to enjoy a renaissance. Anyway, having flipped; she reverted to the schwa.

Anyway, I am none the wiser about this pronunciation. The conclusion seems to be Different strokes for different folks, [and quite often for the SAME folks too].


PS A couple more clues:
  • Uncle Boris turning somersaults to make TV mogul. (10)
  • In a way, kudos to University Challenge. (6)

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

A nagging doubt

A recent edition of Tales from the stave  that dealt with the Delius piece on On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring reminded me of a possible musical influence I have long wondered about.  It not only addressed this nagging doubt, but also advanced the idea of a much more likely influence – not from folk music to art music composer, but from composer to composer. The story did however start with folk music; Delius was at the end of the chain though.

The influence I mistakenly suspected was from an American folk song to Delius. Many years ago, when my ability to read music was even more hesitant than it is now, I found the score of Goodbye old paint in a collection  of American folk songs. It wasn't a melody I knew, but the book provided chord symbols and I eventually worked out A tune that fitted the harmonies. But my grasp of the actual notes petered out after the first phrase

When I later heard the Delius piece I thought  AHA. While Delius was living in Florida he must have been exposed to Goodbye Old Paint.

But the BBC has now disabused me of this. The Delius piece was not an original idea (although I've never been a stickler for originality – as I've said often enough in this blog,  here for example); he got it from Edvard Grieg who he was with in Leipzig in 1887:

Delius playing cards with Edvard and Nina Grieg; see more details here.
Grieg's source was the Norwegian folk song In Ola valley, which he included in a collection of piano transcriptions in 1896. But as that radio programme made clear, the atmosphere of the piece was very different. The story behind In Ola Valley is rather Scandi Noir
In Ola Valley
In Ola Lake
There Eli lost her boy.
They searched in the valley
They rung in the lake
But Eli never found her boy. 

The ending of the verb in the penultimate line isn't very clear in the radio recording, But why I heard /rʌŋ/ rather than /rʌn/ (both fairly improbable at first hearing) was the context: the falling third – Delius's eponymous cuckoo – is supposed to evoke the tolling of a bell (both as a tool in the search and prefiguring the ultimate [presumed] death of the lost child).

So the American folk song quite probably (if my hunch is right)  migrated to America in the folk-memory of Norwegian settlers. It's not a direct ancestor of the Delius piece, but a shared ancestor. Delius's inspiration was a borrowing from (or possibly hommage to Grieg [it was published shortly after his death]). But in either case it shows Delius to be, as one of the contributors says. "not just a kind of melancholy folklorist ... but ...much more as Elgar said 'a poet in sound'".  [That Elgar quote would no doubt be marked 'needs citation' by Wikipedia, but the Beeb's good enough for me.]


PS and a couple of clues:
  • Questionable Tory claim about NHS giving trouble and strife a shiner. (4, 2, 5, 5)
  • Brief affair about one aspect of office life. (6)
Update: 2018.02.07.12:25 – Added PPS.


Friday, 5 January 2018

No "the" please

from Handel's autograph score
Like Pagliacci, Messiah frequently gets an undeserved definite article (although perhaps that undeserved is coming it a bit strong, for people who believe there was only one). Handel's, though, as his original title page showed, has none:

My choir's next offering will be this old favourite – which, like many choir members, I have sung many times before.

At last night's first rehearsal I noticed that my score was adorned with paperclips that marked the last performance's cuts. I couldn't, for a moment, recall the last time I had sung it. But this programme fell out.

And this brought to mind the strange experience of singing with a present-day chapel choir member on either side (as we old growlers were interspersed with Real Singers – who had graduated from choir schools, where the custom had been to admit to having made a mistake by "raising your hand, boy" [so that the choir master would know, and know as a result that that mistake would not be repeated]). So whenever they made a slip (usually one that I wouldn't have noticed anyway) they had this Pavlovian twitch of the arm.

<aha status="interesting but unproven">
The presence or absence of a definite article may, I have just thought, be the root of an affectation  that I have noticed among music lovers. It's Pagliacci, but Il Trovatore.  So rather than risk getting it wrong, they refer to the latter as Trovatore [tout sec – or should that be tutto secco?]
If lasts night's rehearsal was anything to go by, our Messiah should be well worth a night out on 24 March 2018:
Full detais of the concert here


Tuesday, 2 January 2018


Now the dust has begun to settle on another Christmas-tide [and oh yes, I'm not talking about a generic ecumenical Seasonal Festivities – after all it's Christmas Carols that have got the juices flowing]) I am writing again partly prompted by a question I've been asked about io as in io-io-io.

I  have written several times about carols and their opaque lyrics; I awarded a FOGgie to "Hinds o'er the pearly dewy lawn early" here (where I explain:

...the FOGgies are annual awards for outstandingly bad writing. The idea for the name derives from Robert Gunning's FOG index, although these awards don't restrict themselves only to obstacles to readability measured by that index.

) And elsewhere I wrote about those children crowned all in white, who wait around at the end of Adeste fidelis (or Hokum, all ye faithful as it's more commonly known). [That one's quite fun, I think, TISIAS; so much so that I tried to rekindle the flame here (failing, I think, although this snippet leaps out as fairly quotable:
To summarize [the "where like stars" verse] , the souls of the righteous, wearing haloes (in the manner of well-dressed saints everywhere, especially in Heaven) are positioned all around Himself, ready to jump to attention.

But Ding dong merrily on high has hitherto escaped my exegetical pen.

The first thing that strikes me is its structure – which is pretty neat. The first verse is about something happening in Heaven. The second verse draws a conclusion (E'en so) about what should, as a result, happen down here: let steeple bells be swungen. And the third verse goes into specifics, specifying what should happen at Prime...
I know, I know, this isn't a majority view. Still, it's what I think: Pray you Prime is a command about singing a particular office. An early editor, and ignoramus – a benighted heathen no doubt, who was not conversant with the format <utterance_word>+<office_name>, as in  for example "say Mass" – stuck a meaning-wrenching comma after you, making prime a ([n] improbable, it seems to me) verb. 
It just occurred to me that "chime Matins" fits the same pattern (although "chime" makes the format <utterance_word>+<office_name> a little over-specific [suggesting speech rather than just noise-making].)
... and at Matins; and then at the evetime song. In between. the praising etc. goes on, presumably.

But why sing io? There are people who sing /ɑɪ.əʊ/ (which led my correspondent to suspect a connection with Io). But the Oxford Book of Carols is insistent (to the extent of a footnote) that the pronunciation is "ee-oh"  (they don't trust readers with IPA symbols, but they must mean /i:.əʊ/).

Some years ago this question was raised in this forum,  As usual, comments should be weighed in the balance and some will be found wanting;  but they are fairly brief and not very numerous. There are many, often conflicting views:  
  1. "i-o" is a corruption of the Latin "in excelsis Deo"
  2. I-o is a contraction or corruption of "ideo," Latin for "therefore." The implied thought is "ideo... gloria in excelsis deo,".
  3. "io" is a Latin interjection (usually an exclamation of joy)
I imagine the truth is a mixture of the last two. (The first sounds to me like the distinctive blend of fanatically Christian sanctimoniousness and inventive improbability so familiar to survivors of a God-fearing education.) But monks in a scriptorium fought off RSI by abbreviating anything they could; and the pre-existing Latin interjection gave them an off-the-shelf solution.

So "io io io – hoorah" for the New Year.

  • Spooner‘s review of The Navy Lark: "acts without thinking". (6, 4, 3, 3)
  • And not herons either – je ne regrette rien (2. 7)
Update 2018. – Typo fix (peary => pearly) and fixed link.

Update 2018. –  Added PS


Update 2019. –  Added inline footnote