Monday 21 June 2010

Hesternal Pop Music

The French cannot do pop music. Everybody knows this except the French. I once met a fellow who had a theory to explain this gallic failure. He said that all the best pop songs have Germanic lyrics.

English is basically made up of Germanic words like need or house and Latinate words like require and habitation. This fellow assured me that the lyrics to Yesterday were entirely Germanic in origin. This is not true. The words in bold are, ultimately, Latinate.

All my troubles seemed so far away;
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
O, I believe in yesterday.

There's a shadow hanging over me;
I'm not half the man I used to be.
O, yesterday came suddenly.

Why she had to go,
I don't know
She wouldn't say.
I said something wrong,
Now I long
For yesterday.

Love was such an easy game to play;
Now I need a place to hide away.
O, I believe in yesterday.

That's only seven Latinate words out of 84*. By contrast, I just went through the main news story on the BBC website and thirty of the first hundred words were Latinate. I then tried Sonnet 18 which scored fifteen out of 104.

It is well known that you can prove anything, everything and nothing with statistics. However, I think that this theory holds a little water.

Of the seven Latinate words in Yesterday none of them sound particularly Latin. There are no -ations and no -ities. I had always assumed that trouble was Germanic and had never connected it with turbulare. Sudden, which ultimately comes from sub-ire, meaning go up to, has lost the B that made the derivation obvious, and now finishes with a German-sounding -en.

Some words have become so Anglified that they can be re-imported: use and utility, trouble and turbulence. So, that score of 92% Germanic underestimates the effect. I reckon the the chap was technically wrong, but effectively right.

And the cause? I can think of two reasons.

1) The more basic the concept, the more likely it is to be expressed by a Germanic word. That's because the Anglo-Saxons were here before the Normans. They got to name love and hate, while the Frenchies could only Christen attraction and disinclination.

2) Germanic words sound better for pop songs. The consonants are harder. Germanic words thud and bang about, while Latinate terminologies expire in languorous confusion.

I have never believed in Fowler's dictum that the Anlgo-Saxon word should always be preferred to the Latinate. Nor do I imagine for one second that Paul McCartney was consulting an etymological dictionary as he wrote. If he had been I doubt he would have got anywhere at all. I don't know how many conclusions you can draw from this tiny sample, I just find it interesting.

Oh, and if you were wondering (and I'm sure you weren't), hesternal means of or pertaining to yesterday. Indeed, the song could usefully be renamed Hesternopathia, which means "yearning for yesterday". With a name like that, it wouldn't have needed any lyrics at all.

*Not counting repeats

P.S. If I were an academic I would now repeat the process with every Beatles single. Thank God I am not an academic. This is an observation and not a study. Anybody making sarcastic comments about Michelle or the early Kylie hit Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi will be shot.


  1. "Germanic words sound better for songs" - tell that to Monteverdi.

  2. Yes. I should probably have said pop songs, and by the wonders of revisionism I now have.

  3. I'm with you now. In fact I have some Italian hip hop on my iPod which illustrates your point rather nicely.

  4. Italian POP songs are the pits. I once saw Zucchero and Eros Ramazotti in concert in Lugano. It took YEARS for my eardrums to recover.

    But Verdi? Bliss. (Did you know that Verdi was considered an acronym for the royalist movement - Vittorio Emmanuel Re Di Italia - and was daubed on walls by anti-Republicans?)

    This language stuff, though ... I've been told that the mixture of 'concrete' (Germanic) and 'abstract' (Latinate) vocabulary is what makes English so super for writing poetry.

  5. Isn't this the song they say began as 'Frozen peas, all I love to eat is frozen peas' because he got the melody before he got the lyrics? So that HAS to be Anglo Saxon, because surely we're the only nation which eats peas without realising how ridiculous they are.

  6. But if Germanic words are so good for pop music, why isn't German pop more popular? I can only think of Lili Marlene, which hardly counts, and the German translations of the early Beatles songs.

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  8. Maybe, in original form, they're better suited to industrial rock?

    (...Didn't Goethe say that his highest accomplishment was writing poetry in the German language?)

  9. Fran,
    Scrambled eggs,
    Oh you've got lovely legs.

    Which I always sing when eating my second favourite breakfast (after snails).

    My copy of Confessions of Felix Krull has a an enthusiastic blurb that says something along the lines of "They said it was impossible. A great German comic novel."
    I may do a post on Englishmen being rude about German and that quotation will be terribly useful.

  10. Oh, I'm sorry Dogberry, that was a flippant remark. Thought it would be funny since the German rockers are so popular. I'm actually a big fan of Goethe, Kafka, Kant, Hegel, etc. Anyway, I should have reconsidered my post when I thought to add a "just kidding, of course," after the first line. Apologies again - I love your blog and I'm very embarrassed to have posted something offensive.

  11. The first two lines made me snort out loud. French pop sounds like nothing else on earth - and would be recognizeable even if translated into say, Hindi, or Swahili. I imagine so, anyway.

    Did I mention already that you'd be on my list of five people to have dinner with before I get to heaven?

  12. The Antipodean22 June 2010 at 10:53

    Mrs M, how can you forget the international, all-time classic '99 Luftballoons'? And is any non-English pop really popular in English speaking countries, apart from the odd novelty hit?

    Ashley, I was going to mention Rammstein and KMFDM, although I'm not sure that they qualify as 'pop.' Popular, in their own way, but not exactly pop. Also, given the genre, the lyrics don't have quite the same immediate impact as they might in songs where you can actually understand them. Well, think you understand them, anyway.

  13. It's true about the novelty hits, it's just that I can think of many more French and Spanish-ish ones off the top of my head (Joe Le Taxi, Moi Lolita, La Bamba, La Macarena, Las Ketchup's I just revealing my very bad taste in Europop here? I was irrationally excited that Dogberry had mentioned Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi).

  14. Dear Anti: ha! That was a great entry. And yes! That's exactly who I was thinking of! I was obsessed with Rammstein as a kid in the early-mid nineties. Memorized their lyrics and everything. Hehe. Oh, and 99 Luftballoons - classic!

  15. I can't stop thinking about Stephen Hester now. Or "Stephen Yesterday", which sounds like an early draft of a novel by Joyce.