Daily Archives: February 1, 2011


Into the Silent Land!
Ah! who shall lead us thither?
Clouds in the evening sky more darkly gather,
And shattered wrecks lie thicker on the strand.
Who leads us with a gentle hand
Thither, oh, thither,
Into the Silent Land?

Ah, so, Longfellow – so long, fellow, you too have gone into the Silent Land. Whither? Thither, not hither.

Thither – now there’s a word seldom used in conversation. Or, actually, there is a word often used where thither would formerly have been used. It happens that we formerly had separate decitics for stasis and movement: where, here, there all referred to being in a place, and whither, hither, thither all referred to going to a place, while whence, hence, thence referred to coming from a place. Now we can say go there rather than go thither and come here rather than come hither, but we can’t say come there rather than come thence or go here rather than go hence; we need to use a preposition. This seems natural and logical only because we’re used to it.

But we still have these movement-oriented deictics; they are not obsolete, just archaic (except hence, which is used figuratively to mean “therefore”), and they show up in a couple of idioms: a come-hither look and hither and thither.

Now, let me ask you: how do you pronounce hither and thither? Do you say thither like a lisped version of scissor, or do you voice the opening fricative to make it match there and thence? I’ve always been in the habit of saying the opening fricative as voiceless. Of course, an acquaintance at one time took pleasure in pointing out to me that it must be voiced, because there and thither are voiced. Pure logic.

And indeed the voiced version is correct. But the voiceless version is not incorrect – some dictionaries accept it; in fact, American and Canadian ones tend to give it as the first option. After all, why would we expect this one thing in English to be logical and consistent when so many other things aren’t? It does have one salient thing in its favour: it’s the older pronunciation.

You see, all those initial “th” sounds in Old English were voiceless. The voiced version was just an allophone – that is to say, it was thought of as the same sound, and it just picked up voicing when it was in the middle of a word between vowels (like the middle th). This was true of /s/ and /f/ too; the /z/ and /v/ sounds were not used as distinct sounds until Middle English, when the French influence came in. So thence and there – and that and the – were also, in their Old English versions, voiceless initially.

Of course, they all changed, so why not thither? But then again, why? Many originally similar forms have diverged over the centuries. And there is a nice softness to the voiceless version, fluttering like a feather. When you say “Into the Silent Land! Ah! Who shall lead us thither?” which version sounds better, is more soft and silent – which is easier to say, for that matter?

Not that it matters all that much; few people say thither now. Those who do are being poetic, or at least high-flown. Thither itself is slipping into the silent land, as did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as did Johann Gaudenz von Salis-Seewis, whose poem “Ins Stille Land” Longfellow translated into “Into the Silent Land,” as did Franz Schubert, who set Salis’s poem to music. The poem began in Germany, just as did thither, hither, whither, and all the Germanic words in the core of English.

It is a bit different-sounding in the German:

Ins stille Land!
Wer leitet uns hinüber?
Schon wölkt sich uns der Abendhimmel trüber,
Und immer trümmervoller wird der Strand.
Wer leitet uns mit sanfter Hand
Hinüber! Ach! hinüber
Ins stille Land?

Hinüber – “over there”. Somewhat different from thither, but it does start with a voiceless consonant. And how does it end? Like this (I’ll lead with a gentle hand – I’ll return to Longfellow’s translation):

Into the Silent Land!
To you, ye boundless regions
Of all perfection! Tender morning-visions
Of beauteous souls! The Future’s pledge and band!
Who in Life’s battle firm doth stand,
Shall bear Hope’s tender blossoms
Into the Silent Land!

O Land! O Land!
For all the broken-hearted
The mildest herald by our fate allotted,
Beckons, and with inverted torch doth stand
To lead us with a gentle hand
To the land of the great Departed,
Into the Silent Land!

And where is thither in these other two stanzas? Indeed, gone thither in advance.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting thither.


Ah, the adder – a creature and a name that might well be called a subtracter. Why? Reasons multiply, but first of all it’s how the word divides.

What am I nattering about? Oh, put on an apron, cut yourself an orange, and have a seat, and I’ll explain it. Let’s start with the genesis of the thing – specifically, Genesis 3:4, where, in Ælfric’s version, it says, “Ða cwæð seo nædre eft to ðam wife: Ne beo ge nateshwon deade.” Ah, how English has changed in a thousand years. Now we would say, “Then the snake said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die.'” You may recognize cwæð as cognate with quoth. Quoth the snake… But do you see what word in Old English meant “snake”? It’s nædre, which was also spelled næddre and quite a few other ways, including nædder.

But just as the snake in Genesis lost its legs and so reached its nadir (in German, sein Niedergang), the English nædder – become nadder – lost its n. Well, OK, that’s not really true. It’s just that a nadder became an adder – the same shift that took the /n/ off the beginning of apron and orange. So the change in division resulted in a subtraction.

We see that in Old English, nædre referred to snakes generally (and also in particular to the evil snake in Genesis). Here again we have seen over time some subtraction – and multiplication. Our current word adder does not refer to all snakes (just as our current word deer does not refer to all wild animals, as it once did), but it also does not refer to just one kind of snake. It’s used for any of quite a few different venomous vipers from various parts of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as some unrelated venomous snakes from Southeast Asia and Australia, and some harmless North American hog-nosed snakes. All but the hog-noses have another good reason to be called subtracters: if they bite you, they may well subtract you from the living. They surely cause dread in those who have dared to mix it up with them.

And, thanks to metaphor, we add one more way in which adder refers to a subtracter: that deceitful, treacherous, malicious kind of person – the sort I’m more used to hearing called a snake, for the same reason. We may also add some compounds and collocations: adder-deaf, or deaf as an adder, because one kind of “adder” was thought to be deaf; adder’s mouth, a kind of orchid; adderbolt, a dragonfly; adder’s tongue, a kind of fern; and adder-tongued – which takes us back to that sort of person the addition of whose presence is a subtraction of civility. You know, those types whom we wish were nonplussed more often. Ah, their nasty lies – if only Eve had eaten an orange instead.