thither

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.

5 responses to “thither

  1. This is the first I knew that the ‘th’ in ‘thence’ is voiced; I’ve always pronounced it like ‘fence’. Huh.

    Now, how am I supposed to remember the correct way?

    • But as I said, the voiceless way is also correct – Random House, ITP Nelson (and thus American Heritage), and M-W all give it as the first choice. So you don’t need to do anything.

      • Ach, don’t know where my head was when I wrote that; I’m fighting off a cold. Of course you were talking about thence, not thither, and in Modern English that one is in fact always voiced (well, in “proper” Modern English it is – the dictionaries don’t show a voiceless option). Um, think, “I used to think it was θence. Then I found out it was ðence.” To match the sound in then, I mean…

  2. Pingback: Gentle Hand

  3. Pingback: Come Me Special Version

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