The Ballad Tree: A Study of British and American Ballads, Their Folklore, Verse and Music, Together with Sixty Traditional Ballads and Their Tunes

By Evelyn Kendrick Wells | Go to book overview

NOTE

THE footnote references to works listed in the Bibliography cite author, work, and page only.

A number in parentheses following the name of a ballad indicates its position in English and Scottish Popular Ballads, by Francis J. Child. This is the standard reference collection for all ballad study, to which, in the one- volume edition of Sargent and Kittredge, the student may have ready access. In general, ballads are referred to by their title in Child's work, rather than the particular singer's title. Thus "The Wife of Usher's Well" (79) is mentioned as such, rather than as "Lady Gay."

Since many of the texts from Child's work, to which reference is frequently made, were found in ancient manuscripts or early print, or recovered from singers who spoke Lowland Scots, a brief explanation of some archaisms and dialect words is given here.

In the printed sources of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries two characters, Þ and 3, are most nearly matched in sound by th and y. The initial f is often doubled, and v and u are used interchangeably. Pronouns which look like her and hem may be their and them. It appears with its ancient aspirate as hit (cf. haint--aint). There are condensed forms such as ychone for each one, and old inflected forms like shoon for shoes. Words are formed by analogy: the verb put is conjugated put--pat--pitten. The dropping of final letters results in gi for give, na for not; and vowel changes give wae for woe, ony for any, etc. One soon builds up a small basic vocabulary of such words as greet (weep), gar (make), spier (ask), bairn (child), dree (undergo, work out), and weird (fate). Thus "Ye maun dree your weird" means "Man cannot escape his destiny." A word which looks familiar may mean something quite different: when flatter means waggle, "a young man's flattering tongue" takes on new significance. Two lovers halsing are embracing (from Teut. hals--neck): modern slang often has an interesting linguistic past. The homely vigor of many a phrase is felt only in the light of the glossary's information: the picture of the lady who "burnt like hoky- gren" is made considerably more realistic when we know that hoky-gren is "a fire that has been covered up with cinders, when all the fuel has become red."

Corruptions of words or phrases, caused by faulty memory or understanding, are sometimes intelligible, sometimes quite baffling. The nonsense syllables of the refrain are discussed on pages 95-96. Vagaries of spelling may be laid to scribes who were illiterate, or who lived before the days of uniformity in such matters.

-vi-

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