Louis W. Thompson had an op-ed piece in the NYT on Christmas Eve (“The Finest Gifts It Brings”) on “The Little Drummer Boy” (“Yes, torture can be set to music”, Thompson wrote). It’s a little masterpiece of annoying Christmas music.

There’s the relentless drumbeat of “rum pum pum pum”, 21 repetitions per play. There’s the overall tone — in Thompson’s words, “exalted …, pompous, candied, reverential.” And then there’s the syntax. Thompson quoted:

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A newborn king to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum

and added:

Backwards run sentences until reels the mind.

More on this sentence later. First, some comments on the syntax of the sentences from the song.

These all have frontings, of two types.

The first sentence would be better punctuated with a comma: “Come, they told me”. Then it can be seen as a routine example of Quotation Fronting, discussed on this blog here. Quotation Fronting is common (and not stylistically marked) in reporting speech, and it’s often used in “split quotations”, as in the song:

Come, they told me, a newborn king to see. ‘They told me, Come to see a newborn king’

So there’s nothing remarkable about this first sentence.

The other two have a stylistic fronting of English in which a direct object or other complement of a verb can appear in clause-initial position. The associated discourse effect is to foreground the referent of the fronted material — the newborn king, the finest gifts. Marked and (in this case) “poetic”, but entirely within the range of normal English syntax.

Thompson’s piece closes with an account of some good works that sprang from the song: gifts to Wellesley from the estate of the composer and to Yale from one of the artists who recorded the song. Thompson commented:

Davis’s little song with its backward sentences and rum pum pums has now been recorded by more than 200 artists. What an inspiration for music students this holiday season!

At home writing Christmas songs, they are.

Here we have another kind of fronting, known in the syntactic literature as VP Fronting, closely related to VP Ellipsis (some background discussion on VPE here), in that both involve the complement of an auxiliary verb (which is missing in Verb Phrase Ellipsis, preposed in Verb Phrase Fronting). VP Fronted clauses are stylistically marked, but not ungrammatical.

None of the examples so far can accurately be characterized as “backward”. In each, some constituent is fronted/preposed within its clause, but the other constituents are in their usual order.

On the topic of backwardness, recall Thompson’s sentence

Backwards run sentences until reels the mind.

This is a variant of a line from Wolcott Gibbs’s 1939 New Yorker profile of Henry Luce, complete with a parody of Timespeak:

Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

The main clause here has a fronted adverbial (the motion adverbial backward) and also an inversion of the main verb (the motion verb ran) and the subject (sentences). This is a reasonably well-studied construction, illustrated by several sorts of examples:

[children’s book] Into the room hopped the little bunnies.
[sports announcing] Onto the floor comes Johnson.

Note that this combination of fronting and inversion yields something that has the main constituents in reverse order from normal — Adverbial Verb Subject — so

But reeled the mind is genuinely odd. English has several constructions in which a subject and main verb are inverted, but in modern English these all seem to involve a fronting as well, as in the motion cases just discussed, or in locative/existential examples like

In the garden stands a statue. ‘In the garden a statue stands’

Modern English also has an inversion of auxiliary verb and subject, even without a fronting, in the construction Subject Auxiliary Inversion, as in yes-no questions:

Will you answer the question?

But otherwise verb-subject inversions are bizarre. (Things used to be different in older English.) Which is one of the things that makes until reeled the mind so funny.

The Language Loggers have noted similarities between Timespeak and Yoda-speak (see especially here and here), though Yoda-speak goes into some strange territory. (There’s an inventory of postings here.)

4 Responses to “Fronting”

  1. arnoldzwicky Says:

    Addendum: there are at least a few idioms with Verb + Subject (presumably, remnants of an earlier order), for instance come EVENT ‘when EVENT comes’, as in “Come Friday, we’ll be exhausted” and “Comes the revolution, we’ll all be kings”.

  2. johnwcowan Says:

    I always read the initial [ɑ] in the second line as a non-rhotic token of our, not as a, and a few quick googles seems to confirm this.

  3. The perils of fronting « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on Yoda-speak, on Language Log (with an inventory of earlier postings), here, and on this blog, here and […]

  4. Why so strangely Yoda speaks | Legally Speaking – Legal Recruiter Blog Says:

    […] fifth is from a well-known Christmas song (with “pa-rum-pa-pum-pum” removed; thanks to Arnold Zwicky for that example). The sixth is from Walt Whitman. The last is from The Apprenticeship of Duddy […]

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