Friday, 8 March 2013

what were all the row?

I’ve had a song running tiresomely and unseasonably through my mind over the last few days, a song I don’t think I have heard or sung for sixty years or more, not in fact since we learnt to sing it when I was at prep school.

The snatch I remember starts out as Good King Wenceslas but then morphs into something else.

"Good King Wenceslas looked out," sings we with splendid power:
Several neighbours looked out too, to see what all the row were!
We sings forte (sounded like a hundred),
Even in the soft bits how we thundered!

With the modern resources of Google and YouTube I was able to track it down. It proves to be a comic song entitled ‘The Carol Singers’, by T. C. Sterndale Bennett and Charles Haynes.

The full text is to be found here, and there is a performance of it here.

As you can see, it is written in a style that Jack Windsor Lewis calls ‘linguistic slumming’, with non-standard -s endings on non-third-person-singular verbs, were for was, ˈhʌndə(r)d for hundred and the like.

…And some rather tortured rhymes. There is no w in power ˈpaʊə when spoken rather than sung. This is for the same reason as applies to the lesser of two weevils joke (blog, 31 Aug 2010), and no matter how much you resist the tendency to smooth aʊə towards aə ~ aː, it can never really rhyme with row were ˈraʊ wɜː. Note that were has to take its strong form wɜː here, with the long/strong vowel, not just because it is sung but also because it is ‘stranded’ (followed by a syntactic gap — see blog, 28 May 2008).


  1. Would ˈraʊ wə be impossible, or even ˈraʊ ə?

    Is there always a clear difference between No idea what all the row's about and no idea what all the row w's about?

  2. I would always sing power with a w unless there were some pressing musical reason not to. Yes, it's slightly exaggerated in this case, but what else should we expect from a comic song?

    An unexaggerated w is what one sings in The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la and doesn't sing in (anglicised) Oh flower of Scotland.

  3. Another suitable candidate for an energetic w:

    Cosher Bailey had an engine
    It was always wanting mending,
    And according to the power,
    She could do four miles an hour

    And there's no following word like were to motivate it.

    1. But that would be enough of a rhyme whatever your pronunciation is.

    2. Yes, but it fits the music much better with w.

  4. I note that the singer in the video doesn't actually say hunderd; he sacrifices the rhyme instead. This must have been a standard pronunciation as recently as a century and a half ago, however:

    Cannon to right of them,
    Cannon to left of them,
    Cannon in front of them
      Volley'd and thunder'd;
    Storm'd at with shot and shell,
    Boldly they rode and well,
    Into the jaws of Death,
    Into the mouth of Hell
      Rode the six hundred.

    There's another rhyme that the singer sacrifices, in this case to make the pun clearer:

    Still we never got no cash
      Which didn't seem quite just,
    Seeing we'd stood there for hours
      And singing fit to bust.
    Then our p'liceman, old Bob Bates
      Comes up a scad [?] improper,
    "Good old Bob!" young Perkins said,
      "At last we got a copper/cuppa!"

    Anyhow, the word sounds like "cuppa" to me.

    1. There does exist a cylinder recording of Lord Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade (Wikipedia Ogg Vorbis file), although the quality is low and the end of each stanza he seems to speak at a lower pitch which the phonogram hasn't picked up. The one instance I can make out, he seems to be pronouncing "thunder'd" and "hundred" differently, so perhaps it's just a near-rhyme.

      Of course in the Westcountry "hundred" is still ˈhʌndɚd, that metathesis being common in unstressed syllables (e.g. "children" as ˈtʃɪldɚn or ˈtʃɪlɚn), but in my experience it's not productive anymore in stressed syllables, with the exception of the lexicalized pair "great"–"gurt" ɡɚt.

    2. Fascinating! A very open TRAP vowel. Also the expected open and relatively unrounded (compared to today's RP) THOUGHT/NORTH vowel.