Pied-Piping Day

… was yesterday. From John Lawler on Facebook, this comment about the Pied Piper of Hamelin and an illustration, originally from Richard Galgano:

July 22 is Ratcatcher’s Day (celebrated on June 26 in Hamelin, Germany)


The summary of the folklore, from Wikipedia:

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (German: Rattenfänger von Hameln) is the subject of a legend concerning the departure or death of a great number of children from the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Lower Saxony, Germany, in the Middle Ages. The earliest references describe a piper, dressed in multicolored clothing, leading the children away from the town never to return. In the 16th century the story was expanded into a full narrative, in which the piper is a rat-catcher hired by the town to lure rats away with his magic pipe. When the citizenry refuses to pay for this service, he retaliates by turning his magic on their children, leading them away as he had the rats. This version of the story spread as a fairy tale. This version has also appeared in the writings of, amongst others, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning.

A bit of the (very entertaining) Browning:

They fought the dogs and killed the cats,
And bit the babies in the cradles,
And ate the cheeses out of the vats,
And licked the soup from the cooks’ own ladles,
Split open the kegs of salted sprats,
Made nests inside men’s Sunday hats,
And even spoiled the women’s chats
By drowning their speaking
With shrieking and squeaking
In fifty different sharps and flats.

Illustration #1, with some rats, is a recent one. Here’s an older one with a great stream of rats, from a 1902 postcard, along with one version of the Rattenfänger folksong “Wandern, ach wandern” (a more familiar 1912 text by Adolf Kunz begins: “Wandern, ach Wandern durch Berg und Tal”):


And here’s one (by Kate Greenaway, to accompany the Browning poem) with the children:


Now, about the dates (July 22 vs. June 26); these come from two different versions of the story. From Wikipedia again:

[One version] In 1284, while the town of Hamelin was suffering from a rat infestation, a man dressed in pied clothing appeared, claiming to be a rat-catcher. He promised the mayor a solution for their problem with the rats. The mayor in turn promised to pay him for the removal of the rats. The man accepted, and played a musical pipe to lure the rats with a song into the Weser River, where all but one drowned. Despite his success, the mayor reneged on his promise and refused to pay the rat-catcher the full amount of money. The man left the town angrily, but vowed to return some time later, seeking revenge. On Saint John and Paul’s day [26 June] while the inhabitants were in church, he played his pipe yet again, dressed in green, like a hunter, this time attracting the children of Hamelin. One hundred and thirty boys and girls followed him out of the town, where they were lured into a cave and never seen again. Depending on the version, at most three children remained behind. One of the children was lame and could not follow quickly enough, the second was deaf and followed the other children out of curiosity, and the last was blind and unable to see where he was going. These three informed the villagers of what had happened when they came out of church.

… The earliest English account is that of Richard Rowland Verstegan (1548 – c. 1636), an antiquary and religious controversialist of partly Dutch descent, in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (Antwerp, 1605); he does not give his source…Verstegan includes the reference to the rats and the idea that the lost children turned up in Transylvania. The phrase ‘Pide [sic] Piper’ occurs in his version and seems to have been coined by him. Curiously enough his date is entirely different from that given above [June 26, 1284]: July 22, 1376; this may suggest that two events, a migration in 1284 and a plague of rats in 1376, have become fused together.

But why did John Lawler, a linguist, bring up Rattenfängertag? Here’s what he said on Facebook (bold-facing added by me):

All syntacticians know today as Pied-Piping Day, the day
in honor of which we should pied-pipe the constituents
with which we start our relative clauses, to amuse those
with whom we are speaking.

Note the verb pied-pipe (a back-formed two-part verb). From Wikipedia on pied-piping:

In linguistics, pied-piping is a phenomenon of syntax whereby a given focused expression takes an entire encompassing phrase with it when it is “moved”. The term itself is due to John Robert [known as Haj] Ross; it is a reference to the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the figure of fairy tales who lured rats (and children) by playing his flute. Pied-piping is an aspect of discontinuities in syntax, having to do with the constituents that can and cannot be discontinuous. While pied-piping is most visible in cases of wh-fronting of information questions and relative clauses, it is not limited to wh-fronting, but rather it can be construed as occurring with most any type of discontinuity (extraposition, scrambling, topicalization). Most if not all languages that allow discontinuities employ pied-piping to some extent, although there are major differences across languages in this area, some languages employing pied-piping much more than others.

The bold-faced expressions above begin restrictive relative clauses. The second and third have Ps fronted together with a wh-word; the alternative is P-stranding:

(the consituents) which we start our relative clauses with
(those) whom we are speaking with

The first is more complicated. Let me eliminate the relative clause embedded within a relative clause and consider instead

(the day) in honor of which we pied-pipe constituents

This has in honor of pied-piped along with which; the stranded-P alternative is

(the day) which we pied-pipe constituents in honor of

We can construct examples in which there are three alternative versions: stranded P, fronted (pied-piped) P, and fronted (pied-piped) NP + P. In a non-restrictive relative clause:

[stranded P] a study, which the details of I do not know
[fronted P] a study, of which the details I do not know
[fronted NP + P] a study, the details of which I do not know

One Response to “Pied-Piping Day”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    In one of his collections, Walt Kelly (of Pogo fame) did an interesting variant on the Pied Piper story, in which the piper cleared the town of “monsters” whose presence kept the sun from shining, in exchange for a promise that, once the town became “merry and bright”, the townspeople would keep it that way. The elders of the town attempted to keep this promise by strictly disciplining their children, for fear that they would disrupt the new equilibrium — with the result that the town grew dark again. The piper returned, and lured the children away, leaving the elders muttering in the in darkness that he had “saved them again”.

    (This is one of the few Kelly sequences that I can remember that had actual human characters.)

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