Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Do about a "Do"

A self-described "curious Norse" named Erik sent me an e-mail recently, puzzled by English-speakers' use of the word do.

The word in itself, isolated, I can understand, but what I cannot comprehend from an etymological point of view, is the logic behind the (for me) seemingly puzzling word order, ie. sequence of words in phrases such as:

"do you need help?"
"She doesn't do drugs."
"How do you do?"

Isn't this repetitive/superfluous use of the verb DO..? If not, pls. explain. I mean, why not just say "need you help?" or "how do you?"

The short answer is "mostly it has to do with word order,"and I'll get to that in a minute. And no, it isn't really logical or efficient, but language seldom is. Language is organic and democratic and thus generally illogical and inefficient.

In English, do is a "light verb" (along with "come," "get," "go," "have," "put," "set," "stand," and "take"), which means, in addition to its regular meaning, it takes on dozens of others, especially in combination with particles. Many languages have such verbs, and they're useful, though they can be infuriating to non-native speakers.

The light verbs often also function as auxiliary or helper verbs, zombies drained of meaning that slave for other, fully living, verbs to express tense or other niceties of grammatical meaning. "Have" and "be" do this often in English. The "have" in "I have been to Paris" has nothing in common with the meaning in "I have $800 to spend on hookers."

The auxiliary use of do, however, is mainly as a dummy. The auxiliary do is used for questions ("how do you do?") and negatives ("doesn't do drugs").

Taking the second first, the great grammarian of English, Otto Jespersen, noted the "comparatively recent use of do in negative sentences, through which I do not know and I did not know have been substituted for the earlier I know not and I knew not."

The Old English construction place the negative first: we ne sungen ("we didn't sing" -- literally "we no sung"). In Middle English, as the negative got demoted in the sentence order, do was introduced to allow the negative to stay in front of the principal verb. This may have been reinforced by a desire to avoid misunderstanding that would arise if the negation was withheld till the end. Without the do, a negative sentence can seem like one of those Wayne's World gag lines where a positive statement you think is sincere is terminated by an emphatic "not" that turns it on its head.

And if you think of:

I do not want to remember.
I want not to remember.

There are useful but subtle distinctions of meaning between these two sentences, perhaps perceptible only to native speakers or those who have truly mastered the modern idiom.

Do also can be added as a dummy to a verb merely to express reality or strength: "I do wish you wouldn't spend so much on whores." With imperatives, it can express a strong entreaty: "do be quiet." This use goes back to late Old English. Probably the same unconscious tactic gave rise to the U.S. Southern habit of using done as a perfective auxiliary: "done said it" was noted as a Georgia peculiarity as far back as 1827.

I think some of this has to do with emphasis. Do is an emphatic burst of air, a very assertive sound. If your actual statement is not strong-sounding ("be quiet"), it helps to be able to lean on the do to get attention. My son has always been a strong-headed type, and when he was 2 and 3 he never used the word "yes," but would respond to anything in the affirmative with "do!" Meaning, I suppose, "I do," but you could tell by his whole body language that he was giving it the utmost force.

"How do you do" as a phrase inquiring after one's health is attested from 1697; the form "how do you" is more than a century older, being recorded from 1563. This corresponds roughly to the period in which the dummy do began to be used in such sentences.

The do in the one-verb sentence meant "fare, thrive, live." In the two-verb form, it has moved to the back, and an auxiliary, which happens to be the zombie or dummy do, has been inserted in its old place to preserve the subject-verb word order.

Word order, along with prepositions, is the key to understanding modern English and the reason the language was able to drop the inflections of Old English that its Germanic cousins still preserve. "Man" and "dog" look pretty much the same no matter what they are doing in a modern English sentence, so it is only by word order that we know the difference between the meanings of "man bites dog" and "dog bites man."

Old English didn't have this problem. "Man" was se guma when it was the subject of a sentence and þone guman when it was the object (accusative). Hund had the same form in both cases, but took a different definite article -- se or þone -- so it was easy to identify whether it was initiating the action or receiving it. Se guma bat þone hund and þone hund bat se guma both only can mean "the man bit the dog."

Without those tags, however, the language can get confused. So English speakers settled on the order Subject-Verb-Object for our sentences. So much so that anything else feels stilted, archaic, or just plain wrong. In "Beowulf," which is Old English poetry, only 16 percent of the sentences containing all three elements use the order S-V-O. Representative 19th century British writers, by contrast, use the order S-V-O in up to 97 percent of the sentences containing all three.

But questions present a challenge to that. According to Jespersen, "The word order characteristic of questions consists in placing the verb before the subject. This is opposed to the general tendency of the language, which is to have the subject before the verb. But the two tendencies are reconciled when the verb placed first is a comparatively insignificant auxiliary, while the really important verb comes after the subject ...." [Jespersen, Essentials of English Grammar, 1933, 28.6.2]

The tendency to this goes as far back as Chaucer, who has, in the Monk's Tale, "Fader who do ye wepe?" But it really snowballed in the 16th century. Jespersen writes, "During the last few centuries, the use of do (does, did) has become the rule in such interrogative sentences as contain no other auxiliary; instead of the old 'Swims he?' etc., we now say: Does he swim? ..."

That this use is related to word order preference is supported by the fact that do is dispensed with in interrogative sentences in which the subject naturally preceeds the verb: "Who swims?" "What happened?"

"How do you" is V-S word order. That word order is grammatically acceptable but avoided whenever possible. The strict S-V-O rule is broken more often in poetry, for the sake of meter, rhyme, or emphasis, than in prose. In either case it feels stilted. You could say, "Had he no money?" and be speaking perfectly comprehensible and grammatical English, but almost every real person in my experience would say, "Didn't he have any money?" The former is reserved for stock Hollywood characters meant to represent British stuffiness.

It reminds me of the old Three Stooges gag (perhaps in more than one short) where for whatever reason the numbskulls are trying to learn to be refined gentlemen and being tutored in it by some classy society dame, who gives them a book to read from to improve their diction and grammar.

Larry (reading): See the deer. Has the deer a little doe?
Curly: Yeah, two bucks, nyuck-nyuck.
Moe: [eye poke w. sound effect]

In cases like "how do you do" and "does she do drugs," do is both the auxiliary and the main verb; it is a slave to itself, though the zombied form is not felt by most English speakers as identical to the real verb (which, in each of the cases cited, is itself derived and wandering from the original sense). Such double-duty use of do is at least as old as c.1489, when this sentence turns up: "It is to late to repente me that [i.e. what] I dyde not doo."

I was curious as to what "do" does in Norse, but it turns out they don't have it. English do (and German tun) descend from a West Germanic strong verb wanting in Gothic (which used its form of English work in this sense) and Norse. My Norsk-Engelsk dictionary gives gjøre for "do." The Golden Rule in Norwegian, according to the dictionary, is gjør mot andre som du vil de skal gjøre mot dig.

This word gjøre, based on the length of the entry in the Norse dictionary, seems to have a wide range of applications and use in special phrases translated into English by "do" but also by "be," "go," "make," "take," and "put."

The Norwegian word descends from Old Norse gørva, which originally meant "make ready." It is related to the Old English words gierwan "prepare, cook," gearwe "clothing, dress," and gearu "prepared, ready." All of them have fallen out of the language, but the Anglo-Saxons borrowed a word gervi from the viking settlers, which meant "apparel" and which was from the same linguistic root stock. By the 13th century this had become gear and meant "equipment" generally. (The meaning "toothed wheel in machinery" first is attested in 1523).

As a result of all these uses, the Oxford English Dictionary entry for the verb do runs to 20 columns of close-set type. Do is the third-most-common verb in English, according to a survey of newspapers, magazines, popular books and textbooks done at Brown University in 1982. Of a million words of modern English text, 4,367 will be do or some form of it.

[It runs a distant third, though, to its fellow auxiliary verbs "be" -- 39,175 words -- and "have" -- 12,458 words.]

Many of these widespread senses of do are recent additions to the dictionary, but in number they've only replaced older ones that have fallen out of it. Chaucer used do (with "that" and a subordinate clause) to mean "to make so, to cause." His knight says, "Do that I tomorwe haue victorie." To Chaucer, do also could mean "to cause someone to do something," where we would now use "make." Chaucer's franklin says, "In yow lith al to do me lyue or deye."