Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vestigial Inflection

As Middle English morphed into Modern, its Germanic word-endings dropped off like fly wings. No longer did a word show its part of speech. Grammatical inflection became a matter of traditional usage and guessed context, with declension and number no longer in evidence. Even before that, European writing in general had lost the intricacies of Latin grammar, clause buried in clause. These disrupted fragments, even before the advent of commas, worked because the parts of speech were visible on the words, so they could be reconstructed and reconnected like puzzle pieces.

But a few writers of Modern English are historicists, stalwartly harking back to a better and more complicated time in the history of language. Please enjoy parsing this bit of mastery from Anthony Burgess' Enderby Outside, featuring three distinct grammatical roles for a most unlikely noun:

"Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions."

And cherish with me, friends, the layering of the clauses, not unlike the concentric levels of ... an onion!

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