Episode 31: December 20, 2006
Grammar Girl here.
Today's topic is subversive Christmas carols.
And now, on to our question. There's a listener named Kat whose holiday joy is crushed every time she hears the Christmas carol “Joy to the World.” She asks:
Why do we sing "Joy to the world, the Lord is come," rather than "Joy to the world, the Lord has come"?
Not wanting Kat to face the holidays with grammar consternation, I went on a quest to figure out what's going on with these lyrics.
It actually turned out to be a pretty tough question, but I eventually discovered that the phrase the Lord is come uses an archaic form of English that was very common back in 1719 when “Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts. A number of references say that this construction uses the word come as an unaccusative intransitive verb (and don't worry: you don't need to remember that because it's a form that's now nearly extinct in the English language ).
If you're watching for it, you'll find similar constructions in a lot of older works. For example, in the 1300s Chaucer wrote, “The spices and wine is come anon,"* in The Squire's Tale. In the late 1700s Jane Austen wrote, “Oh, Look. Charlotte is come,” in Pride and Prejudice, and in the 1800s William Blake wrote, “The melancholy days are come,” in The Death of Flowers, and Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It is come now,” in Jane Eyre. I found examples from as late as the early 1900s (2).
Sometime in the 1900s people stopped speaking this way. I'm not sure why, but one reference said that it might have been “partly due to the identical pronunciation of is and has” when they're used in contractions. For example, "he's come" could mean either "He is come" or "He has come" (3).
I don't usually talk about foreign languages, but I found it interesting that many Romance languages, such as French and Italian, still use this verb form, and it is normal today in those languages to say the English equivalent of "He is come."
A lot of the material I found about archaic English usage was far too complex for Quick and Dirty Tips, so I am including a list of further-reading resources at the end of the transcript for people who want to learn more about it.
Also, I'm very excited about our next episode, because it will include a wonderful grammar song! So make sure you're subscribed so that you don't get busy and forget to download it.