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 être 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.¡

"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.

"Saludos cordiales,

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 (website functioning again, happily, after a few problems)

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    From Peter,

    <<*Note the technically incorrect positioning of 'only': avoidable, I decided, only by a clumsy periphrasis.>>

    If something can only be avoided by a clumsy periphrasis, and is easily comprehensible and unambiguous, the best thing almost always is to leave it alone. ‘Only’ and ‘even’ naturally fall into the mid-position for adverbs (between subject and verb or after the first auxiliary verb, as with frequency adverbs) though obviously they can be moved for emphasis. However:

    1. Some sentences, such as yours are quite unambiguous as they stand.

    2. In those that aren’t the non-standard meaning is emphasised in some way. Thus ‘I only saw John’ would normally have the stress on John and would mean that I saw him and no-one else. To make it clear that I saw him but didn’t have a chance to speak to him, I would say ‘I only saw John’ with a heavy stress in speaking or the use of italics or bold type in print.

    It must be said though that not all printed text is clear about this and it is sometimes to misunderstand a dialogue in a novel if the stress is not clear.

    Note the first sentence of this message:
    • If something can only be avoided by a clumsy periphrasis

    is surely more natural than:

    • If something can be avoided only by a clumsy periphrasis.

    All the best,


  2. Brian says:


    You wrote:
    >>• “If something can only be avoided by a clumsy periphrasis” is surely more natural than: • “If something can be avoided only by a clumsy periphrasis”.

    Probably more natural, especially in spoken as distinct from written English. But I confess that I would have written the latter…