There are a lot of classic songs sung at this time of the year. But the singers don’t always seem to pay all that much attention to what they’re singing – to mark their words, as it were. Or else they hear the words and try to make sense of them according to syntax they’re more used to. “God rest you merry, gentlemen” (using an archaic sense of rest meaning “keep” or “make”) is interpreted as “God rest you, merry gentlemen.” And more often you hear it with you altered to ye because it seems more old-style – but ye was always the nominative; you was originally just the accusative… so when ye was in use, it would not have been used here.

And, of course, “Hark! The herald angels sing” is often misunderstood as “Hark the herald, angels sing.” Not that those who read it that way can necessarily say exactly what hark the herald means. Is it some combination of, say, ring the bells and what the heck? Or is it that hark is taken as transitive, so that rather than saying hark to the herald or harken to the herald (or hearken to the herald), it is hark the herald (sort of like how some people will, with the awkwardness that comes from dysfluency in formal English, put assist you do something rather than assist you in doing something)?

What does hark mean, anyway? Well… listen. Pay attention. Give ear to. It has a nice, sharp, commanding sound to it – not the weaker liquid and hiss of listen, but the military force you get with march and charge and other orders barked out starkly. It’s not the mere inclination of the head but the sudden pricking up of the ears. When you hark, you hear and ken.

Which reminds me: hark but hearken? Certainly the words are related – harken is another spelling for hearken. But why is it not heark? Perhaps because it would look too much like it’s pronounced /hirk/? Yet we have no problem with heart and (sometimes) none with hearth. Is it just simpler to follow the the pattern of mark, bark, dark? (Hmm… Mark! Hark to the bark in the dark!)

Well, yes, it’s simpler to follow the pattern of bark and dark, which came up from Old English as beorc and deorc, then went into Middle English as berk and derk, and arrived in Modern English as bark and dark. Hark had just the same route: OE heorcian to ME herken to ModE harken and hark. So the real question is, Why hearken? Why not just harken?

And the answer seems to be along the same lines as why God rest ye rather than God rest you: we have these ideas about what is an older, more classic, more formal style – we prefer what linguists call the more marked form (that means the more exceptional one). Just as many people will try to emulate older English by adding eth randomly to verbs or tacking on e to nouns here and there, and will assume thou is more formal (in its time it was actually the familiar term, equivalent to French tu and German du), so they will also go for ye rather than you and will assume that anything with a silent e must be classier. Add to that the force of analogy – with heart and heartening and hearth and (in spelling) hear – and you have sufficient force to make the variant spelling seem more correct.

So why not heark? Perhaps without the en it lacked enough sense of formality; perhaps hark was better established in common usage. Or perhaps heark just didn’t make it into the dictionary… you won’t have trouble finding some examples of that spelling. See www.wordnik.com/words/heark, for instance.

But, really, we can’t always expect archaic usages and modern singers to be reconciled. Especially when more current usages aren’t always heard correctly either. As in the fourth line of our song du jour, where “God and sinners reconciled” is sometimes heard as “God and sinners wrecked in style.” Well, if we’re going to wreck the songs, at least they’ll be wrecked in style… Like many a holiday reveller.

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