Thursday, May 16, 2013

heard tell 'bout them linguistic constructions yonder

Randomly, my mind wondered onto an older English slang phrase, "heard tell" which is culturally associated with rural and working class. It means something like "I heard about X." Before I get to the interesting role of prepositions, here are some examples:

a) When you say that you knew about, do you mean that you have heard tell about other things?
a) Maria and me concluded that we had struck one o' them gamblin' places we'd heard tell about, and I tell ye we got out in a hurry!
b) I never heard tell of it until I was told by Justice Bolte about it.
a) "I niver heard tell that you had an owl in your parlor chimney," said he, sort o' suspicious-like.
b) And we had a gentleman in our county that perhaps most of you have heard tell of,
a) I asked him if he had ever heard tell of a bouse they called the House of Shaws.
b) "Never heard tell of him," said John William, making spectacles of his burnished bores, and looking through them into the sunlight.

Originally, I selfishly assumed "heard tell" was an American English slang construction, but upon a little Google Ngram sleuthing, I discovered it is a common English construction.

American English

British English


Though details differ, the general pattern is clear: A general rise in frequency throughout the late 1800s, peaking at the turn of the century, a general decline throughout the 20th century, then a leveling off around the mid 1970s. The American English usage was a lot more unpredictable, a bit choppy, but generally follows the same pattern.

But what interests me most is the red line in all of the above graphs. That's the one that plots the frequency of the tri-gram "heard tell of". This stung me a bit because my brilliant native speaker intuition strongly preferred "heard tell about", but in this I am in the minority.

For the graph impaired: What the red line in the above graph tell us is that when English speakers have used "heard tell", they most frequently follow it with "of" even though they have a semantically similar choice available, namely "about" (and even "that").

I don't have a semantic analysis of the difference between prepositions (though I don't doubt an interesting one could be engineered), but after I consoled my wounded linguistic pride, I then realized that the construction with the preposition "of" strongly tracks the overall pattern. The bigram search "heard tell" is a more general and inclusive one, hence its results include all of "heard tell of" results as well. If you imagine taking away everything underneath the red line, there would not be much left, less than half to be sure. This means that "heard tell of" accounts for more than half of all instances of "heard tell".

I don't know why "of" became so tightly associated with the "heard tell" construction, but it struck me as a nice example of how construction semantics are not necessarily compositional, intuitive, or even necessarily coherent. I wonder if these three choices "heard tell of/about/that" have regional variances? We will need a more nuanced corpous to tease that out.


vp said...

For me, "heard tell of" is a fossilized idiom. I've never heard anyone say "heard tell about", nor would it occur to me to use it.

julliard said...

someone told me that "hear tell" might be derived from the chinese, "ting shuo" - which has the exact same meaning and syntactic usage. seems improbable, but who knows?

Jimmy said...

I wouldn't know if it's a coincidence, but 'heard tell' is a direct translation of the Chinese 听说 (ting1 shuo1), having the same meaning. Its popularity seems to correlate pretty well (although a lot less common) with "long time no see", which too is a Chinese loan phrase.

Chris said...

vp - there's nary a theoretical hair's width 'tween "fossilized idiom" and "construction." :-)

I also thought about Southern English double modal constructions like "might could", if only because they also involve a double verb and are associated with rural, working class English.

Thai is famous for its "serial verb" constructions, which may be theoretically related, but I've never studied them.

Chris said...

julliard and Jimmy - you both seem to have heard the same thing. This is the first I've heard of 听说 (ting1 shuo1), but it's a nice linguistic morsel to nibble on. I'll tweet about it and see if anyone in the Twittersphere has any insights.

Anonymous said...

I use "heard tell" as in "why, I never heard tell of such a thing" all the time. My contemporaries get a kick out of it when I do. I don't know where I picked it up, maybe back home (rural southern ontario with deep british settler roots, i'm in my early 30s) or on tv. I do remember reading Tony Blair's book and he used it.

Anonymous said...

I used this term just slipped out. My parents who are Irish use this term occasionally. I'm turning out like my parents, to be sure.

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