Who Is He?

In her continuing effort to find an honorable person in one of our backgrounds, Shirley is reading William M. Metcalfe’s, 1905, The History of the County of Renfrew. She ran across this rather abnormal passage,

Among his prisoners in the castle was Thomas Earl of Angus, who died there in 1364. Four years later he sold a horse to the King for £20; and in 1379 the King sent him a pipe of wine.

I haven’t read much of this book. Not being abnormally interested in persons of honor, I leave that to Shirley. But of the little I have read or had quoted to me, I haven’t found a single pronoun, and they occur in profusion, whose antecedent was completely clear and I don’t think Shirley has either. I’m guessing that the “his” in the first line refers to Sir John Denniston. Mentioned some eight sentences and a dozen pronouns before the above quotation, John Denniston is the most likely proper name presenting itself as a candidate antecedent for “his.” But even that identification is far from certain. I’m guessing that the “he” in the last quoted sentence is the same follow and not the prisoner Thomas Earl of Angus but you couldn’t be sure from syntax, at least modern syntax, alone. If this last sentence read, “Four years later he was found and buried and in 1379 he rose from the dead,” you might have a few questions, but who “he” is wouldn’t be among of them.
Does the book mention any of my relatives? Yes, at least one, Alexander Porterfield. But just how many depends in several places who he is.

4 thoughts on “Who Is He?”

  1. Ah, the importance of context is precisely why programs like Babelfish will never be able to give us an entirely reliable translation until it can first be taught to understand the context of what it reads.

  2. Um, probably the text originally was in Latin — there would have been no difficulty at all in determining what applied to whom. This appears to be a very literal translation — with someone forgetting that, when translating into English, one must really put in the proper antecedents.
    Glen G. is right.

  3. Glen and Rochelle,
    Context is always the killer for translation software. Babelfish and others even have trouble with local context much less context that extends over many sentences. With the introduction of multidimensional approaches to translation software, not to mention a lot more computer power and memory, some programs do a better job than others do. But I doubt that any will ever reach the point that they don’t generate laughable output on a fairly regular basis. Then, as Rochelle points out, even humans often do that. By the way, it is possible that some of Metcalfe’s early sources were in Latin and he translated them way too literally. But one sees some of the same tendencies in his 1905 preface and introduction which I doubt ever had a Latin Vorlage.

  4. Ha. This type of writing comes from reading too much of another author’s works or in any language with case endings.
    Funny Story: I had a professor who had chosen to write her PhD thesis on George Eliot (because of the small corpus). She related that friends started commenting on her stilted English, so very 19th-century, in her letters. It was an effort, but she did finally manage to rid herself of Eliot’s style of writing.
    Milton actively cultivated the Ciceronian model. Paradise Lost has an English vocabulary combined with Latin syntax. (One of the reasons I do not like Milton was his bare-faced “borrowing” of Cicero’s speeches to build up his reputation as a speaker for the Parlimentarians. Some of them,including the most famous, uses Cicero’s very words and images. Then, he was the most conceited, self-important ass. Adam in PL is himself; his poor, unhappy wife [sacrificed for her family] is the model for Eve.)
    If Metcalfe had been literally translating Latin (and his early sources *would* be in Latin), it is extremely likely that he would use that style.
    After reading page after page of commentary on the Psalms by 19th-century types, I found myself imitating their convoluted, loquacious style. Whoa! I got rid of that, right quick.
    So, there are many considerations when it comes to why someone would write that way in English.

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