Summer isn’t a-cummin’ in after all, apparently
In a widely disseminated e-mail message the other day, I rashly mentioned in a throwaway last line that "Summer is a-cummin’ in at last. About time too.â€? This has prompted the following well deserved and magisterial rebuke from that master linguistics professor and pedant-in-chief (First Class), my good friend and mentor Peter Harvey, who, like the immortal Manuel, is "from Barcelonaâ€?:
As with Hamlet’s custom that is more recognised in the breach than in the observance, I am afraid that you are mistaken here too.
"Sumer is icumen in means Summer has come in. In Middle English the past participle of come was construed with be (as venir is with Ãªtre in French) and the past participle had an ‘i’ or ‘y’as a prefix that is still to be found (just about) in the word yclept. This corresponds in fact closely with modern German, where kommen is construed with sein and (almost) all past participles have the prefix ge-. In German summer has come in would be Sommer ist eingekommen with the ein corresponding to in but being attached as an inseparable prefix to the start of the past participle. Constructions such as He was already gone when we arrived are found in modern colloquial English. As the OED says under go: ‘The perfect tenses were originally formed with be; this is still used where the tense expresses a state, have being substituted where it expresses an action; in many cases either auxiliary may be used without perceptible difference of meaning.Â¡
"But, having said that, it is not clear that the seasons were recognised in the Middle Ages as they are now. It is possible, especially with the reference to the cuckoo, that this song really referred to the start of the warm weather after winter. Spring meaning the season was first used in the sixteenth century.
To which, as a mere pedant cadet (Second Class), I could only reply*: Well, I never! I’m much obliged to Your Lordship.
*Note the technically incorrect positioning of ‘only’: avoidable, I decided, only by a clumsy periphrasis.
Brian yclept Barder
http://www.barder.com/brian/ (website functioning again, happily, after a few problems)