Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Serial verbs, rhoticity and detective work


There's a song out at the minute called Come save me by a band (or maybe a person, I don't know) called Jagwar Ma. It's quite good - you can listen to it at Soundcloud. It caught my attention because although the title is Come save me, he clearly sings Come and save me in the chorus. I wonder if it was a typing error somewhere that's ended up becoming official.

The come save me construction, we'll call the serial verb construction (because that's what it is, basically, though it's not as productive as in languages that have proper serial verb constructions), and let's call the other, with and, the conjoined verb construction. It probably has a proper name but I'm teaching in a few minutes so don't have time for extensive (or any) research.

To my ear, the serial verb construction is much more a US usage, and in the UK we would tend towards the conjoined verb construction. This is unsubstantiated by anything other than my own intuitions, and corpus research would no doubt prove me wrong (especially as I think the serial verb construction has increased in use over here in recent years - though that may well be the recency illusion). But there we are, that's my intuition.

So then, I thought, where are they from, these Jagwar Ma people (or this Jagwar Ma person)? Rather than, you know, google it, I used linguistics. First, I eliminated the US, or at least most of it. Almost all US accents are rhotic (r-pronouncing) (some are not, in the South for instance), so they would pronounce the /r/ at the end of Jagwar. That would mean that the name wouldn't rhyme, and surely you don't give yourself a name like that without intending it to rhyme. That leaves the UK as a possibility, but what about Australia, for example? They're also non-rhotic down under. Well, it turns out that Jagwar Ma is from Sydney (yeah, I googled it), which fits just nicely with the non-rhoticity and also makes the words rhyme very well. I can't easily find out if the serial verb construction is more common than the conjoined verb construction, or vice versa. I'd bet that the singer/song-writer has the conjoined verb construction, though.

A side note: I expect that, if the serial verb construction is indeed on the rise in the UK, some people would complain about this terrible Americanism sweeping the language of today's young people. But Wikipedia tells me that Maggie Tallerman (1998) gives this as a construction surviving from Early Modern English, so yaa boo sucks to those people.


  1. You got me thinking, and there's one more point of linguistic interest in the name. "Jagwar" is, to my mind at least, a representation of the word usually spelled "jaguar", But the pronunciation it represents, something like /dʒægwɑ(r)/, is the North American one. Australian speakers, as far as I can tell (see here for examples from lots of speakers) use the same pronunciation as we do in the UK, which is /dʒægjuə/. So if this is all true, the name involves (1) a more 'phonetic' representation of the dominantly North American pronunciation of "jaguar" and, at the same time, (2) UK/Aus-style non-rhotic pronunciation that rhymes "jaguar" with "ma".

  2. Yes, that's true. I interpreted it to be 'jaguar' as well, but didn't think about the different pronunciations of it. I agree that 'jagwar' seems to represent what I think of as the US pronunciation, though I have heard occasional UK speakers pronounce it that way. Curiouser and curiouser.