Thursday, February 24, 2005

Well; well, well; well, well, well

I'm still reading The Stories of English. It's a big book and it tends just a tad to the academically dusty and dry. Its small flights are very welcome. Below I've reproduced one of these; a riff on the word well. It's a short "interlude" in the narrative, one of many interspersed in the text. I can imagine what Christopher Ricks would do with this material (only just barely imagine, but that's the joy of Ricks after all).

Here's the Pricenoia listing for Stories. You'll find the AllConsuming listing for it in the Books I'm Reading section to the right.

I scanned and OCR'ed the text to get the following copy. It is certain to have errors, for which I apologize. In putting it here, I'm stretching the fair use provision in Copyright. I hope you'll agree that this copy shows off the book well the way sample chapters do on sites like Amazon. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

It's long, and I'm afraid I can't resist adding to it from other sources. But I'll do that in a separate post (well, as it turned out, separate posts).

Extract from The Stories of English by David Crystal:
Interlude 8

Well well

Well, this interlude presents another feature of conversational style.

We would not expect to see such an opening in a formal written text. Well is out of place. When the word is used in this way, it does not express such meanings as the adjectival 'healthy' or 'satisfied', the adverbial 'successfully' or 'properly' or the nominal 'spring of water'. It is one of a group of words that has a range of subtle factions marking the way a discourse is structured or the relationship between the participants in a dialogue. And they are characteristic of the more informal kind of conversational English.

Well can mark a change of topic or action (well what book did you read, then?) or introduce a piece of reported speech (he said well not everybody thinks like that). It can mitigate the force of a confrontation: well I don't think so is more pacifying and less abrupt than the bare I don't think so. It can express rapport: Well how are you! And it can be used to emphasize uncertainty (well I'm not sure about that), express an attitude (well!), or just fill a silence (well . . . ). In all cases we are dealing with one of the most distinctive and frequent features of colloquial style.

The first examples of this range of use are in Middle English, and provide an important indication of the way styles were evolving during that period. Well was often used in Old English in its adjectival, adverbial, and nominal meanings, but not in a clear discourse-marking way. The nearest we get to this function is the way wella or wel la was used as an attention-getting device before important statements, equivalent perhaps to 'Listen!', and sometimes translated as 'Alas!'. Old English made more use of Hwæt!, used at the beginning of a discourse as a call to the listener to focus attention on a familiar point or story which is to follow. Its most famous literary manifestation was as the opening word of the Beowulf saga. Its closest modern conversational equivalent would be you know? or do you know?

Neither wel la nor hwæt survived in Middle English. But Chaucer, with his sharp ear, shows that wel was already established in a discourse function introducing a piece of direct speech. The Manciple has been a little reluctant to tell his story, having stepped in to replace the drunken and incapable Cook, and his opening remark shows the softening force of the word (Prologue, The Manciple's Tale, II. 25, 104):
'Wel,' quod the Maunciple, 'if it may doon ese
To thee, sire Cook, and to no wight displese . . .'
In other words: if people don't mind my stepping in. . . The Host is delighted:
Telle on thy tale, Manciple, I thee preye.
And off the Manciple goes with the new topic:
'Wel, sire,' quod he, 'now herkneth what I seye.
Wel (also in now wel) is used ten times by Chaucer's characters in its discourse function, always preceding a quod- quod she, quod oure hoost, quod Pandare. It is also used in prose. At about the same time as Chaucer was writing, we find it in Thomas Usk's The Testament of Love (1384-5, Book II, Chapter 7, l.7). This particular instance is striking, as it contrasts with well in a different sense:
'Wel,' quod I, 'this inpossession [imposition] I wol [will] wel understande.'
A century later we see well preceding the verb said in The Morte Darthur. In Book I, Chapter I, for example, we find two well-users interacting:
Then for pure anger and for great love of fair Igraine the king Uther fell sick. So came to the king Uther Sir Ulfius, a noble knight, and asked the king why he was sick. I shall tell thee, said the king, I am sick for anger and for love of fair Igraine, that I may not be whole. Well, my lord, said Sir Ulfius, I shall seek Merlin, and he shall do you remedy, that your heart shall be pleased. So Ulfius departed, and by adventure he met Merlin in a beggar's array, and there Merlin asked Ulfius whom be sought. And he said he had little ado to tell him. Well, said Merlin, I know whom thou seekest, for thou seekest Merlin; therefore seek no farther, for I am he; and if King Uther will well reward me, and be sworn unto me to fulfil my desire, that shall be his honour and profit more than mine; for I shall cause him to have all his desire. All this will I undertake, said Ulfius, that there shall be nothing reasonable but thou shalt have thy desire. Well, said Merlin, he shall have his intent and desire. And therefore, said Merlin, ride on your way, for I will not be long behind.
Merlin is evidently being very accommodating.

But for the full range of discourse uses of well, we have to wait for Early Modern English. We find rapport uses, for example, in the second act of Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister (1566):
TALKAPACE Well, Truepenny, never but flinging! [rushing around]
ALYFACE And frisking!
TRUEPENNY Well, Tibet and Annot, still swinging and whisking! [dashing about]
TALKAPACE But ye roil abroad. [gad about]
And earlier in the play we find Talkapace softening a caution with an early use of well inside a sentence:
If ye do so again, well, I would advise you say.
It is Shakespeare who illustrates virtually every well usage in his plays, and puts them into the mouths of characters from all social ranks. The only usage which is missing is the one introducing direct speech - unsurprisingly, as these are plays not narratives - but even this function is touched upon when the rebel Holland reflects (Henry VI Part 2, IV.ii.7, with First Folio punctuation):
Well, I say, it was never merry world in England, since Gentlemen came up.
Apart from this, we have well expressing group rapport, as when Horatio invites Barnardo to tell his story (Hamlet, I.i.33):
Well, sit we down . . .
There is well expressing change of event, as when Hamlet gives the players leave to go (III.ii.55):
Well, go make you ready.
We see well offering the chance of a new topic when Hamlet, after an aside to Horatio, turns to Osrick once again (V.ii.I34):
Well, sir?
The word seems to be just filling the silence in Hotspur's account of his boredom in listening to Glendower ranting on (Henry IV Part I, III.i.152)
I cried 'Hum', and 'Well, go to!'
And it becomes a substitute for articulate speech in All's Well That Ends Well when Parolles, returning from a battle, expostulates (II.v.87):
Lose our drum? Well.
Shakespeare actually gives us a discoursal gloss when he has Hamlet warn his fellows (I.v.I75) that he does not want the game given away when he puts 'an antic disposition on'
by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know' . . .
And in this dialogue (Henry IV Part I, I.ii.45) well marks someone wanting to reduce the force of a confrontation. Falstaff has addressed Prince Hal in typical blustering style, but when he receives an equally forceful response, he yields:
FALSTAFF What a plague have I to do with a buff jerkin?
PRINCE HAL Why, what a pox have I to do with my Hostess of the tavern?
FALSTAFF Well, thou hast called her to a reckoning many a time and oft.
This is a scene full of linguistic fencing: as many as seven of the sixty exchanges begin with a discourse well. And one of them shows an expansion of the usage:
PRINCE HAL Well then, once in my days I'll be a madcap.
Well then is one of several ways of adding emphasis. Well now is another, used by the countess in All's Well That Ends Well (I.iii.94). It is an interesting usage, as they are the very opening words of a private conversation with her steward, an invitation to speak intimately:
COUNTESS Well, now.
STEWARD I know, madam, you love your gentlewoman entirely.
Doubling the well is another way of adding emotion to an interaction. Somerset's tension is apparent when he asks the others which rose they will choose, white or red, to show which side they are on (Henry VI Part I, II.iv.55)
Well, well, come on; who else?
In Coriolanus (II.i.26) the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are so irritated by Menenius' long-windedness that they break out into a joint exclamatory prompt:
Well, well sir, well.
And in Macbeth (V.i.51) the Doctor uses a triple well, at a loss to know how to react on hearing the profound sigh from the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth:
GENTLEWOMAN I would not have such a heart in my bosom, for the dignity of the whole body.
DOCTOR Well, well, well.
GENTLEWOMAN Pray God it be, sir.
What is interesting about the Gentlewoman's response, of course, is her taking the Doctor's words literally. This must be the first recorded instance in written English of someone failing to understand a discourse function of well.

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