Friday, January 02, 2009

God rest you merry (again)

The first line of that carol deserves a comment regarding grammar and punctuation.

People comment on two things about it. First, that the word is always "you" and not "ye", and second, that there should be a comma after the word merry, not after the word you, so it goes God rest you merry,... Gentlemen, not God rest you, ... Merry Gentlemen.

The two points are related.

You is the accusative case of the second person plural, so 'you' is the object of the verb 'rest' which is used as a transitive verb. God is the subject of the verb, and the verb is in the subjunctive mood, because it expresses a wish or third person imperative. As you will recall (from such examples as "The Lord be with you" and "Be it this Christmas eve" and "God bless you", or indeed just "bless you") the third person singular of the subjunctive in English looks like the infinitive, and doesn't have an s on the end. That is we say "God bless you", not "God blesses you". The latter is the indicative. The former is the wish (may God bless you) expressed in the subjunctive, so it does not require the "may".

So "rest" in "God rest you merry" is in the subjunctive, and means "May God rest you merry".

"Merry" is the complement of the verb. Rest can (or could in the past) take a number of such complements, such as rest happy, rest content, and it was also used transitively either with a reflexive pronoun (I rest myself content) or with a personal pronoun when you make someone else rest happy or rest merry etc. In this case we ask that God will rest merry the present company (Gentlemen).

"Gentlemen" is in the vocative, and addresses the assembled company. The phrase is exactly comparable to if we were to say "God bless you, Gentlemen" but instead of wishing for blessing we ask for resting merry. Quaint, heh?

If the pronoun were written as "ye" the grammar would be scrambled, because "ye" is really the nominative and would suggest that the assembled company is the subject of the verb. But we've already had the subject, God. Then it would look as though God were the object, and we were saying "May you gentlemen rest God merry, please." But that is not the point.

So although this is an archaic text which preserves a lot of quaint old English, we don't want to go in for any fake archaising, like substituting "ye" in place of "you". No: the text almost certainly should be written with "you", because "you" is quite correct as the second person plural accusative.

I have to say I was a little saddened to discover that the song wasn't addressed to a company of "merry gentlemen" as I'd always supposed. But I suppose that the implications of "rest you merry" is that they are already merry, and God is to keep them so. Perhaps the jolly image of a good company of drinking folk in the inn is not so wide of the mark then.

I'm surprised they haven't tried to make "Gentlemen" more unisex for our current climate. Perhaps some bad hymn books have? Gentlefolk would do the job, I suppose.


Lee said...

I'll plead ignorance, because I didn't know this about the carol. Thanks for setting it straight in my (gappy) knowledge!

Steve Hayes said...

God rest you merry, VIPs
let nothing you dismay... said...

" not so wide of the mark then."

Shouldn't it be "off the mark"?

Catherine Rowett said...