’Tis Hallowe’en. Darkness falls o’er the land. Ah, if e’er there were a night for ghoulies and the deil, ’twere e’en this one. A night when all is dark poetry… and a gremlin goes about stealing v’s.
No, that’s not quite it, but one does wonder. Hallowe’en, from Hallow even (as in evening); deil, a Scottish version of devil; and then there’s e’er and o’er and e’en… But of course those are not confined to Hallowe’en. Rather, they are hallmarks of heightened, poetic diction to most modern English eyes.
Well, there’s a reason for that: the place we typically see them is in archaic verse, where even and ever and over have been condensed into single syllables to fit the meter. We see e’en in Shakespeare, to be sure, and not always in the verse – it shows up in some of the more casual speeches too, demonstrating that it was also used in ordinary speech. Hamlet uses this contraction e’en five times (and other characters in the play another half dozen); it shows up nearly two dozen other times throughout the Bard’s plays. (On the other hand, e’er shows up 85 times, but only once in Hamlet, while o’er is used 211 times, including 14 in Hamlet.)
But who would say it thus? Does it not seem forced? We’re used to contracting vowels, but less so consonants. In modern English, where we do drop or greatly reduce consonants, they tend more often to be at the tip of the tongue – /t/, /d/, even /n/, sometimes /z/, innit? We are not so much in the habit of leaving out /v/ these days. So this hollow e’en truly does seem like a creature from Hallowe’en. It may intend to be even, but, frankly, it’s rather odd. It looks like a claw has come down and plucked the v out.
What it really is is a sign of shifting phonotactics. Different languages, even different accents, have different possible versions of a given sound. In the kind of English I speak, /t/ can be reduced to a stop or left out entirely next to a nasal or some other consonants, but not usually between vowels; in some versions of English, it can be replaced with a glottal stop between vowels; in others, it has to have the tongue touch the palate everywhere. In some kinds of English, [h] is lost at the beginning of a word, and [r] after a vowel becomes a lengthening of the vowel. In other kinds, no. In Spanish, [b] and [v] are two versions of the same phoneme, but not [p] and [f], and [d] and [ð] are versions of the same phoneme, but not [t] and [θ]; in Dutch, you can drop the [n] in an en ending; in French, many consonants are only pronounced at the end of a word if there’s a vowel starting the next word, and in past times it became so standard to drop s (said [s] or [z]) before certain consonants in certain words that it was just replaced with a circumflex over the previous vowel; and so on.
Differences between dialects, differences between languages… also differences within a language over time. Or should that be o’er time? You see, it was at one time the case in English that lazy lips could let the [v] sink and slip, and accommodating listeners would fill in the blank – just as “’sup” can be understood as “What’s up”… Nome sane? (Nome sane? Ima let you figure that one out.)
Yes, yes, it was lazy speech, of course, just as contractions ever are: economy of effort. But accepted enough in its time and place, just as ’tis. Now, of course, ’tis is considered formal or, if in dialect, cute, while it’s is just casual. And e’en? Words are known by the company they keep, and e’en, like o’er and e’er – and of course ne’er – is only ever seen in hymns, Shakespeare, and lofty poetry. It’s moved up in the world.
Funny, innit, how current syncopations can be so casual and archaic ones so formal. It’s as though the ghosts of working-class toughs gained tuxedos. When I was writing Songs of Love and Grammar, my friend and colleague Carolyn Bishop (who, by the way, has lately come out with a book of wordplay called Meaningless Platter Dudes) suggested a novel punctuation mark especially for these elevated revenants (and all the nonce contractions made by lazy poets to cram words into the line). Here is what I made of it:
for Carolyn Bishop
Had I it in my pow’r
e’en for a wond’rous hour
to let words solemn hark’d
in print be plainly mark’d,
the mark I’d use would be
oft call for syncopations;
howe’er, a plain contraction
is plebeian detraction.
To keep solemnity,
Take ink plash’d from a fount
on ’Lympus’ heavn’ly mount;
’scribe it with quill-pen gain’d
from phoenix wing detain’d;
’gainst alabaster be
Like cherub’s down, the curl
shall clockwise-turn’d unfurl
’til, widdershins returning
(profan’d convention spurning),
with circlet tipp’d shall be
This stroke shall through the ages
be ’grav’d on scepter’d pages
so humbl’d reader knows
that whilom mundane prose
is rebirth’d poesy