Solemner and its kin

From Arthur Goldwag’s Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies (2009), p. 294:

It reads like a parody of some of the Freemasons’ solemner scriptures (which is precisely what it is) …

I noticed the inflectional comparative solemner (rather than the periphrastic comparative more solemn), because I have a collection of inflectional comparatives and superlatives that have struck some people as inferior to their periphrastic counterparts, or as simply wrong. This one wasn’t in my collection, nor was the superlative solemnest, but I’ll bet there are people out there who are unhappy with them.Some facts. Two more cites:

A propos of the previous item, I’ve posted the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s factum in their case against the Ontario premier. It’s scalding reading: you could not imagine a solemner promise than McGuinty made, over and over again, to abide by… (link)

So in societies where people think alcohol makes you rowdy, you have rowdy drunks. In societies where people think alcohol makes you solemn, you get circles of men sitting around drinking and getting solemner and solemner until they pass out. (link)

And for solemnest:

But throughout the album, [Barbara] Hendricks is able to convey a high level of energy and passion, even during the quietest and solemnest moments. (link)

Today marks the solemnest date on the Greek-Orthodox religious calendar. (link)

OED2 under solemn has one cite for solemner, seven for solemnest, all of some age (1867 is the most recent).

Then there’s Emily Dickinson:

The World — stands — solemner — to me —
Since I was wed — to Him —
A modesty befits the soul
That bears another’s — name –

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon Earth

Both forms seem to be used today, but not as frequently as they once were. A number of writers on historical English morphology have noted a gradual decline in the use of the inflectional degree forms, and solemner/solemnest seem to fall right in line with that.

As such forms decline in frequency, some speakers will be inclined to view them negatively, since they will seem unfamiliar.

Here’s another one I haven’t yet seen a complaint about, but there are surely people who object to it: corrupter, as in this example from Clive James (“Blood on the Borders”, New Yorker 4/9/07, p. 94):

If mainland Italy is corrupt, Sicily is corrupter, and Montalbano has some plenty-mean streets to walk down.

The Language Loggers have posted on inflectional degree forms on at least three occasions: Geoff Pullum on wronger here, Ben Zimmer on (somewhat incredibly) stricter here, and Ben on bitterest here. Meanwhile, I have files on the following inflectional forms, following up on objections in ADS-L, various newsgroups, and e-mail:

cleverer, iller, opener, realer, solider, stupidest, winningest

Here’s Ben in the stricter posting on the general issue:

… there are certain monosyllabic adjectives that never take a comparative or superlative inflection (like, loathe, worth), and others that rarely do (cross, ill, real, fake, wrong). But we could consider a third class of monosyllables that are deemed improper by some and not by others. It’s usually adjectives of two syllables that elicit these grey-area judgments (e.g., often, common, pleasant), but there could very well be some monosyllabic adjectives that also fit the bill.

(Ben considered vast and fond.)

In many of these cases, passions (mostly opposed to some forms, but sometimes in favor of them) tend to run high, and judgments tend to be absolute.

8 Responses to “Solemner and its kin”

  1. Gavin MacDonald Says:

    I’m a little bit on the younger side, and thus I’m more likely to perceive some inflectional comparatives and superlatives as “awkward” or at the very least archaic, but I’ve noticed that many of those sound less awkward (or even acceptable) in the attributive position only, and especially when followed by or part of idiomatic speech, which probably reflects their “archaic” status in my brain.

  2. The Ridger Says:

    Hmmm. “Vast” and “fond”? Really? “Fonder” seems completely unobjectionable to me, and Marvell used “vaster” in the 17th century:

    My vegetable love should grow
    Vaster than empires, and more slow.

    Though perhaps that just means it’s now archaic. “More vast” and “most fond” do seem more common, though I wouldn’t say they were the only correct forms.

  3. mollymooly Says:

    One wrinkle is the silent “n” of “solemn”. When I read “solemner” I want to sound that “n”; cf. “damnable”, “autumnal”, and the “young-youngest” type mentioned in the “wronger” posting.

    I know that I favour inflection more than most people nowadays, since I am given pause often by reading “more/most X”, but rarely if ever by reading “Xer/Xest”.

    Hypothesis: an author’s relative tendency to use long words correlates with their tendency to favour inflectional over periphrastic comparison.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    Ummm. I DO sound the N in damnable and autumnal. (And MWU agrees with that.) So why not just say “solem-ner”?

  5. m Says:

    I googled for a remembered line highlighting one of your examples — it’s from W.B.Yeats. I found this:

    “W.B. Yeats, in his poem `Among School Children,’ mentioned Plato and then `solider Aristotle,’ but the printer made it `soldier Aristotle.’ That version went unchanged in several printings of Yeats’s complete poems while he was still alive, suggesting that he may have decided he could live with `soldier.’ In the edition of 1947, eight years after his death, `solider Aristotle’ was substituted.”


  6. John Lawler Says:

    In Geoff’s LL post on wronger, he refers to ‘the noun meaning “one who wrongs somebody”, which is not relevant here’. But the behavior of long, at least, is different with the two {-er} morphemes: longer meaning ‘one who longs’ has no /g/, whereas comparative longer (by far the more common) has an /ŋg/ cluster. Similar phenomena with strong.

    I vacillated between pronouncing wronger with and without /g/, and without sounds better to me; but that’s the rule for the agentive morpheme. Unfortunately, it’s the comparative morpheme that’s at issue here, and that just doesn’t sound right either way. So I’d have to go for periphrasis.

  7. mollymooly Says:

    I too sound the N in “damnable” and “autumnal”, which are derivations. Likewise “solemnity” and “hymnal”.

    But I don’t sound the N in “damning”, “hymning”, or other inflections, apart from the exceptional -ng adjectives.

  8. Simon Cauchi Says:

    Some people — my wife, for example — pronounce the /ŋg/ cluster in “long” as well as in “longer” and “longest”. I trace it back to the English Midlands, where her mother came from.

    As for inflectional comparatives, I’ve noticed several in Max Beerbohm’s rather precious writing. The only one I can find now is “quicklier”:

    “He will not live down quicklier than they the taunt of amateurishness in his secondary art.”

    (He = Whistler. They = Rossetti and Disraeli. Secondary art = for Rossetti painting, for Whistler and Disraeli writing.)

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