Friday, September 28, 2012

WOTD: Tooken

Tooken isn’t a word. This is what you hear from the prescriptive grammarians and their acolytes. If they have children, sooner or later they end up correcting them. Children use tooken naturally as they attempt to understand and internalize the “rules” of our language. But rules are made to be breaken. :)

It starts with take. This goes back to Old English tacan, adopted from Old Norse taka “to take” sometime between the end of the eleventh century and the first half of the twelfth, which is pretty late — almost too late to be called Old English at all. Before this very late borrowing, the usual Old English verb was niman “to take, receive, get”, a common word with a wide range of cognates among the other Germanic languages (cp. Old Norse nema; Old Frisian nima, nema; Old High German neman; Old Saxon niman; Gothic niman). It survived into Middle English as nimen, but it was more and more displaced by Middle English taken, táken (not to be confused with tácnen “to signify, betoken”, to which we’ll come back a little later).

The verb take has its own history. The verb originally carried the meaning “to touch”, where the Old Norse (and later Old English) sense of “take” came from the association of touching with the hands, i.e., getting a hold of, grasping, seizing. In the original sense, we find such cognates as Gothic tékan, Old Saxon *takan, West Tocharian täk, Latin tangere, etc. Modern English tackle and attack are clearly related. But take in its modern sense is specifically Northern Germanic.

The Old English verb, like its Old Norse source, is what we call a strong verb, meaning that it forms the preterite (i.e., past tense) with a change in the stem vowel, rather than by the addition of a suffix (in Modern English, –ed). For example, a strong verb speak, has a preterite like spoke, while a weak verb like talk, has a preterite like talked (instead of, say, *telk). In the case of take, the stem vowel, a, changes to a long-o in the preterite. In Modern English terms, we call this kind of verb irregular. Its past tense is not *taked, but took (OE tóc, ON tók). The participles, however, retain the root stem vowel unchanged. Thus, the past participle is taken < OE tacen. It’s worth noting that in Old Norse, the normal past participle (tekinn) does exhibit a vowel change; however, this is umlaut, not ablaut. In fact, the form takinn also occurs, though much less often. (If you don’t understand what I mean by umlaut and ablaut but would like to, start here.)

The point is that, in normal English (that is to say, prescriptive English), we should expect taken, not tooken. But tooken is a legitimate enough word, particularly in historical or dialectal use, in both the U.K. and the U.S. To begin with, the Oxford English Dictionary itself gives tooken as an obsolete past participle of take. Obsolete essentially means here that we ought not to use it, unless we don’t mind appearing old fashioned, but it is attested in the history of the language. That is, it wasn’t “wrong”, at least once upon a time. That’s very different from an accidental form that has never been in use. If a form was once in use, and we decide we no longer like it, well, that’s prescribing use, rather than describing it.

The form tooken also appears in Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary, both as the preterite and the past participle. For the former, Wright gives a quotation from the Devon dialect: “he tooken off his coat”. For the latter, he gives several examples, from Lanark, Yorkshire, Lincoln, Cheshire, Shropshire, Devon, Cornwall, etc. Except for the last two, these are all in northern England or southern Scotland. A couple of examples will suffice: “I’ve tooken a deal o’ pains”, “for fear I should be tooken faint like”, and how about this wonderfully rich one: “Hoo was tooken wi’ one on her feenty aitches an’ hoo tiped o’er”. But that’s barely English, you might object!

A short sidebar, while you collect your righteous grammatical indignation. Before I give a few more details and examples of the history and validity of tooken as a preterite and past participle of take, I should disambiguate it from a nonce word of the same spelling. It turns out that you can find tooken in Early Modern English as an antecedent form of the Modern English word token (remember, I mentioned Middle English tácnen above). Sir John Cheke, the first Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, translated parts of the Gospels from the original Greek into Tudor English. In his translation of The Gospel of Matthew (c. 1550), Cheke spells the English token with two o’s, as in: “And ye Pharisais and Sadducees cam and tried him, and required him to shew yem a tooken from heaven.”

In an 1843 edition of this translation, James Godwin (also of Cambridge, three centuries later) writes that Cheke “was desirous of […] correcting the orthography and pronunciation of English” and, moreover, of conscientiously avoiding words of foreign origin. “The introduction of these words was begun in the days of Cheke”, he continues. “But Cheke considered the English language to be sufficiently copious without them. In fact, he thought them intruders, and that the English language was degraded by being mixed up with other words and phrases, for which we were indebted to other countries”. Consequently, Cheke didn’t care too much for existing English translations and endeavored to produce some of his own, in which the native wordstock of English was properly showcased. To do so, he invented some words out of native English roots to take the place of recent acquisitions of Latin and Green origin; so, for example, where Wiclif (1380) has centurien, and Tyndale (1534) has centurion, Cheke substitutes hunderder; where Wiclif has apostlis, and Tyndale apostles, Cheke coins frosent (meaning “those sent forth); and where Wiclif and Tyndale have crucified, Cheke has crossed. Tolkien would have been sympathetic to the effort.

Even more unsettling, Cheke adopted some new rules for spelling English, designed (so he thought) to facilitate better pronunciation. One of his rules was to double a vowel pronounced long (dropping the final e, if there was one). For example, taak, Ameen, stoon, and so on. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. To give you a taste, here’s a lengthier passage:

On ye sabbot daí, at night, when ye first daieslight of ye week began to daun, marí magdaleen and an oyer marí cãm to look on ye graue, and loo yeer was a great earthquaak. For y’angel of ye L. cam doun from heaven, and cam yiyer, and rolled awai ye stoon from ye brinke and sat doun apon it, and his face was lijk lightening, and his cloying whijt lijk snow, and ye kepers did schaak for fear, and weer lijk dead men. (Mt. 28:1–4)

But back to the other tooken. Wiclif used this form in his own translation of the Gospel of Matthew. “But the five foolis tooken her lampis, and tooken not oile with hem: but the prudent tooken oile in her vessels with the lampis” (Mt. 25:3–4). This comes toward the end of the fourteenth century, as you saw above. To give another example, Saint Catherine of Siena used the same form in her Dialogues (1370): “And not oonly þat þei plauntid not ony good plaunt in her vyneᵹeerd, but raþir þei tooken up þerefro þe seed of grace.”

In his Middle English Vocabulary, Tolkien cites this form of the preterite (spelled with one o). Under tok(e), token, Tolkien directs readers back to take(n). The source to which Tolkien points readers is from The Gest Hystoriale of the Destruction of Troy, an alliterative romance by an unknown “journeyman poet”, based on the Latin Historia Troiana of Guido de Columna (1287). The word occurs in a passage in Book XXXI of the poem:

Thus tho lordes in hor longyng laghton þe watur,
Shotton into ship mong shene knightes,
With the tresowre of þe toune þai token before,
Relikes full rife, and miche ranke godes. (emphasis added)

[Thus those lords in their longing put out to sea,
Sprang aboard ship among their fair knights,
With the treasure of the town they had tooken before,
Rife with relics, and many fine goods. (translation mine)]

For those who fancy another fancifully Tookish Tolkien connection to the word, I’ve tooken up the subject before.

Probably the best known author to use tooken is Geoffrey Chaucer. A few examples: “And tooken awey this martir from his beere” (The Prioress’s Tale), “yet tooken they noon heede of the peril” and “And right anon they tooken hire wey to the court of Melibee, / and tooken with hem somme of hire trewe freendes” (both from The Tale of Melibee). Chaucer’s contemporary, John Gower, also used this form of the word.

So, you may say, it’s all very well and good to show that tooken was once a valid form, hundreds of years ago, but what has the word done for us lately? Well, as it happens, it’s still being used in dialectal forms. It’s true these are usually looked down on by prescriptive grammarians and those of us who have taken their suggestions as holy writ, but there is absolutely no reason to take a condescending attitude toward dialect. If you’re inclined to, I daresay you’re not a big fan of Mark Twain!

Speaking of Twain, he and his contemporaries were tooken with tooken too. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, tooken is conspicuous in Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, a collection that sought to reproduce post-Reconstruction African-American dialect. Setting aside the controversy about their content, the dialect in these stories comes quickly to the fore. “Brer Rabbit,” says Brer Tarrypin at one point, “I’m dat tickle’ twel I can’t shuffle ’long, skacely, en I’m feared ef I up’n tell you de ’casion un it, I’ll be tooken wid one er my spells whar folks hatter set up wid me kaze I laff so loud en laff so long.” And another point: “Brer Fox talk so close ter de fatal trufe, dat Brer Wolf got tooken wit de dry grins” (emphasis added in both quotations).

In addition to the American South, tooken persisted in the Scottish North. To give one example, there is John Joy Bell’s Wee Macgreegor (1902), an early story of a familiar challenge: getting a small child to pose for a photograph. “What for dae folk get likenesses tooken?”, Wee Macgregor asks his father. In this case, it’s because his mother wants one to give to his grandfather. But “I’m no’ wantin’ to be tooken, Paw,” he complains. Typical. When he’s finally convinced, he asks, “Maw, wull I get ma likeness tooken wi’ ma greengarry bunnet on?” He wants to keep in on. Okay, so then, “Can I get makin’ a face when I’m getting’ ma likeness tooken?” No. In front of the camera at last, the photographer begins to count to three. Wee Macgregor can hardly sit still, then blurts out, “Am I tooken, Paw?”, to which his father replies, “No’ yet, Macgreegor, no’ yet. Ye near spoilt anither photygraph. Keep quate, noo.” The photos are finally taken, but when they arrive, Wee Macgregor is disappointed that the tassle on his cap, which is black, didn’t turn out red in the picture. He had specifically requested his father to tell the photographer to make it red! It’s a cute story about being flummoxed by new technology, a bit like Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss.

Six hundred years after Wiclef the Bible translator, there’s another man of a similar name, still using the word today: Wyclef Jean, the Haitian rapper and former member of The Fugees. In “Year of the Dragon” from his debut solo album, The Carnival (1997), Jean recalls “comin’ from Haiti, growin’ up in Brooklyn / On Flatbush got my first sneakers tooken”. And in the African-American dialect of today, we keep seeing tooken — Jay-Z, Lil’ Kim, Eminem, Black Eyed Peas, Lil’ Wayne. Some will complain that the use of tooken by rappers is of the “tooken isn’t a word!” variety — that is to say, it’s wrong. Some say that you can’t take advice about usage from rappers, because they’re on the fringe of language; they don’t get it; they never learned how to speak properly; etc. Actually, a great rapper is a genius with language, stretching it to the most imaginative limits. Complaining that rappers are wrong is just prescriptive grammar again.

Descriptive grammarians, on the other hand, would argue that since tooken is being actively used, then of course, it clearly is a word. We should merely document when, how, and by whom it’s being used. And if you’re still with me at this point, you’ve realized that it’s not new either; tooken has been a word for centuries. It may not be taught in school, but perhaps that’s just a kind of prejudice. The gatekeepers of language always have their reasons for keeping certain words — or certain people — out. Me? I say the more words, the better. Our children are right to try and force tooken back on us. Will it ever make it into the grammar books? Maybe one day — if enough of us are tooken with it.


  1. Took the name consists of the phrase "Took = catholic monk". Peregrin Took a name indicating a Tolkien first son, John Francis Reuel Tolkien (17 November 1917 to 22 January 2003). Catholic priest remained unmarried, living like a monk. In the life of the hero of the middle earth, and John Francis has many parallels.

  2. Thank you Jason — that was interesting and thought-provoking in the good sense.

    In particular it has made me think of the situation in Denmark.

    In Danish there has long been a tradition for prescriptive grammars: we have, for instance an official law of orthography, (Lov om dansk retskrivning) and a Danish Language Tribunal (Dansk Sprognævn that has, as one of its tasks, to publish the prescriptive dictionary of Danish orthography.

    This situation is of course a dream come true for prescriptive grammarians of all ilks (including those who are on the internet known by derogatory terms). Some years back there was a public discussion over a proposal to make an alternative spelling of mayonnaise ‘legal’ in Denmark — commonly known as ‘the majonæse wars’ (or, if you support prescriptive approach, ‘the mayonnaise wars’).

    One of the unfortunate effects of this is that Danish orthography is standardized to the point that it is impossible to use an archaic language or dialectal forms (people simply do not understand it). Danish children are met with editions of Holberg or Andersen or Grundtvig that have been modernized so that the written language is never more than some twenty years old (sometimes to the point where I suspect the original authors would not recognize their own texts).

    Another effect is that it is impossible to duplicate the linguistic variations that Tolkien uses in his books — in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings everybody speaks in the same standard language, and there is no attempt to distinguish speakers by their pronunciation or by deliberate archaisms — the only distinguishing factor is in vocabulary. This, in my considered opinion, impoverishes the Danish editions.

    This, more than anything else, has convinced me that, though I am raised on a strictly prescriptive diet, a healthy mix of the prescriptive and descriptive approaches is probably to the benefit of our language.

  3. I wonder if there is a link to the Dutch teken (meaning sign) as there is in my mind a tenuous link between signs and taking (for example, as in a sign being something you take information from). Of course teken actually has common roots with the German Zeichen, so I wonder if that's all one comon family of words?

  4. Hi, Cirdan. Interesting idea, but I don't think the two words are related. The do look similar, but their extrapolated origins in Proto-Indo-European are different. And remember, the original sense of take was "touch"; the original sense of token (~ Dutch teken) is "show, teach".

  5. Jason, I thought you might be interested to know that there is an exact parallel in Norwegian. In all standard varieties of the language the paradigm is still much like it was. An infinitive with /a/ (e.g. "ta", or conservative "take" or "taka") and a preterite with , usually pronounced /u/ (e.g. "tok" or "tog"). In bokmål the participle is "tatt", and it nynorsk it can be either "teke" (cf. ON "tekinn") with umlaut, or it can be "tatt". However, the parallel is some southwestern dialects where you can hear "toge" or "togen", plural "togne", as the participle.

  6. Thanks very much for adding this note, Luke. Fascinating. :)