Arrant Pedantry

By

Why Is It “Woe Is Me”?

I recently received an email asking about the expression woe is me, namely what the plural would be and why it’s not woe am I. Though the phrase may strike modern speakers as bizarre if not downright ungrammatical, there’s actually a fairly straightforward explanation: it’s an archaic dative expression. Strange as it may seem, the correct form really is woe is me, not woe am I or woe is I, and the first-person plural would simply be woe is us. I’ll explain why.

Today English only has three cases—nominative (or subjective), objective, and genitive (or possessive)—and these cases only apply to personal pronouns and who. Old English, on the other hand, had four cases (and vestiges of a fifth), and they applied to all nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Among these four were two different cases for objects: accusative and dative. (The forms that we now think of simply as object pronouns actually descend from the dative pronouns, though they now cover the functions of both the accusative and dative.) These correspond roughly to direct and indirect objects, respectively, though they could be used in other ways too.

For instance, some prepositions took accusative objects, and some took dative objects (and some took either depending on the meaning). Nouns and pronouns in the accusative and dative cases could also be used in ways that seem strange to modern speakers. The dative, for example, could be used in places where we would normally use to and a pronoun. In some constructions we still have the choice between a pronoun or to and a pronoun—think of how you can say either I gave her the ball or I gave the ball to her—but in Old English you could do this to a much greater degree.

In the phrase woe is me, woe is the subject and me is a dative object, something that isn’t allowed in English today. It really means woe is to me. Today the phrase woe is me is pretty fixed, but some past variations on the phrase make the meaning a little clearer. Sometimes it was used with a verb, and sometimes woe was simply followed by a noun or prepositional phrase. In the King James Bible, we find “If I be wicked, woe unto me” (Job 10:15). One example from Old English reads, “Wa biþ þonne þæm mannum” (woe be then [to] those men).

So “woe is I” is not simply a fancy or archaic way of saying “I am woe” and is thus not parallel to constructions like “it is I”, where the nominative form is usually prescribed and the objective form is proscribed. In “woe is me”, “me” is not a subject complement (also known as a predicative complement) but a type of dative construction.

Thus the singular is is always correct, because it agrees with the singular mass noun woe. And though we don’t have distinct dative pronouns anymore, you can still use any pronoun in the object case, so woe is us would also be correct.

Addendum: Arika Okrent, writing at Mental Floss, has also just posted a piece on this construction. She goes into a little more detail on related constructions in English, German, and Yiddish.

And here are a couple of articles by Jan Freeman from 2007, specifically addressing Patricia O’Conner’s Woe Is I and a column by William Safire on the phrase:

Woe Is Us, Part 1
Woe Is Us, Continued

By

Here’s You a Benefactive Dative

Yesterday I heard an interesting construction that I’ve only heard of once before. Several months ago a coworker of mine was talking about a family reunion she’d been to, at which one of her cousins had offered her an apple and said, “Here’s you an apple.” I’d never heard anything like it before, but I’d completely forgotten about it until I heard it in person yesterday.

I decided to do a little research and see what I could find about the construction, but I came up mostly dry. Mark Liberman mentioned it in a Language Log post on personal datives but didn’t provide any further explanation. It was also mentioned, again without explanation, in a 1946 article in American Speech, “‘Swarp’ and Some Other Kentucky Words”.

Then there’s Here’s You a Blog, so named because the author encountered the construction in Kentucky and liked it. I also found this forum discussion, which includes some speculation on its distribution and origins. It sounds like it’s most common in the Southern US, especially the Gulf Coast, though I just heard it here in Utah, and my coworker heard it around here, too—her cousins apparently live about ten or fifteen minutes away from me. Perhaps it’s a little like the needs + past participle construction in that it’s especially frequent in one region (namely western Pennsylvania and Ohio) but can be found throughout most of the United States.

But while the needs + past participle construction apparently comes from Scottish, I can’t find any evidence about where here’s you a comes from. It doesn’t sound like German to me (though my German is certainly not good enough to say for certain), and though I suppose it could be a Scotch-Irish construction, my three weeks of trying to teach myself Scottish weren’t enough to give me any clue on this.*

What I find most interesting about this construction is that it’s a little different from both regular dative constructions in English, such as I gave him a book or He baked her a cake, and personal datives, such as I love me some ice cream or He caught him a fish. The regular dative appears with ditransitive verbs, that is, verbs that take both direct and indirect objects. The dative is the indirect object and is typically the recipient of the direct object. So in I gave him a book, him is the indirect object, receiving the book, the direct object. Dative pronouns can usually be moved to a prepositional phrase with to or for, as in I gave a book to him or He baked a cake for her.

With personal datives, the dative pronoun is coreferential with the subject—that is, the dative pronoun refers to the same entity as the subject—and in some cases can be replaced with a reflexive pronoun, as in He caught himself a fish. Note that this doesn’t work in many cases—*I love myself some ice cream is just flat-out strange if not ungrammatical. Generally, though, this kind of dative works much like the standard dative; it appears after a transitive verb and shows that the subject is in some way receiving or benefitting from the direct object. While not standard English, the personal dative is apparently fairly common in Southern and Appalachian English.

But here’s you a doesn’t use a transitive verb; it uses an intransitive verb—a copula verb, to be more specific—with a dummy subject. That is, though here fills the subject role of the sentence, it’s essentially a placeholder to call attention to what comes after the verb. And whereas the dative in the personal dative is coreferential with the subject, with here’s you a it is not, because there’s no real subject for you to refer to. What’s more, intransitive verbs—especially copula verbs like be—don’t take objects, but here we have one that seems to have an indirect object.**

So syntactically, there’s no real person or thing that is giving the direct object to the indirect object, and there’s no real action of giving something to someone. But as with some standard datives, this one can be paraphrased with for you. Just as we can transform He baked her a cake into He baked a cake for her, we could turn Here’s you an apple into Here’s an apple for you. This particular kind of dative is called a benefactive dative, meaning that something is being done for or on behalf of someone.

I still don’t feel like I know what’s going on with this construction, and unless I missed something in my searching, it seems that virtually nothing has been written about it yet. Do any of my readers happen to know more about it? Has anyone else heard it, and if so, where?

*Though now I can say such useful phrases as “Halò, Ciamar a tha thu? Tha gu math, tapadh leat. Tha mi a fuireach anns an taigh-òsda.” I’m sure that’ll come in really handy the next time I’m in the Scottish highlands.

**In the Language Log post referenced above, Liberman quotes Laurence Horn as saying that personal datives aren’t actually indirect object and that “they are not arguments at all, but non-subcategorized pronouns.” I don’t know enough syntax to really understand what this means; maybe someone will help out in the comments.

%d bloggers like this: