... were they never so insignificant ...

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imchongjun

Member
Japan
Hello, everyone.
When I am reading 19th century writings, I often come across the expression "never were they so ..." as in
'Governing persons, were they never so insignificant intrinsically, have for most part plenty of Memoir-writers.'
In the case of the above quotation, does "were they never so insignificant" means "even if they are extremely insignificant"?
 
  • Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hello, everyone.
    When I am reading 19th century writings, I often come across the expression "never were they so ..." as in
    'Governing persons, were they never so insignificant intrinsically, have for most part plenty of Memoir-writers.'
    In the case of the above quotation, does "were they never so insignificant" means "even if they are extremely insignificant"?
    You've got the were and they never in two different orders in your post, Imchongjun. I wonder if that is significant.

    This immediately reminded me of the Prayer Book, the start of Psalm 99:

    The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient; He sitteth between the cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet

    This is Myles Coverdale's translation and dates from the middle of the 16th Century. Be the people is an imperative: the psalmist is telling the people not to be impatient because the Lord will look after them.

    Your quote from Carlyle, 'Governing persons, were they never so insignificant intrinsically, have for most part plenty of Memoir-writers' isn't difficult to understand: the clause at issue means however intrinsically insignificant they may have been. The end of the sentence have plenty of Memoir-writers sounds strange today and I wondered if it was a misprint. These days we'd be more likely to say something like have often been memoir-writers.

    What is interesting to me is that the 19th Century was using almost exactly the same formula to mean something different. The were is no longer an imperative but a subjunctive, surely.

    It makes me question if I have misread the psalm. I wonder what other people will think.

    Perhaps the imperative clause - be not impatient - shifted over the centuries of usage to mean however impatient you may be. After all the verb form is always (?) the same. Perhaps it's not such a shift after all. Be the people never so impatient may mean however impatient the people may be.
     

    Elwintee

    Senior Member
    England English
    You've got the were and they never in two different orders in your post, Imchongjun. I wonder if that is significant.

    This immediately reminded me of the Prayer Book, the start of Psalm 99:

    The Lord is King, be the people never so impatient; He sitteth between the cherubim, be the earth never so unquiet

    This is Myles Coverdale's translation and dates from the middle of the 16th Century. Be the people is an imperative: the psalmist is telling the people not to be impatient because the Lord will look after them.

    Your quote from Carlyle, 'Governing persons, were they never so insignificant intrinsically, have for most part plenty of Memoir-writers' isn't difficult to understand: the clause at issue means however intrinsically insignificant they may have been. The end of the sentence have plenty of Memoir-writers sounds strange today and I wondered if it was a misprint. These days we'd be more likely to say something like have often been memoir-writers.

    What is interesting to me is that the 19th Century was using almost exactly the same formula to mean something different. The were is no longer an imperative but a subjunctive, surely.

    It makes me question if I have misread the psalm. I wonder what other people will think.

    Perhaps the imperative clause - be not impatient - shifted over the centuries of usage to mean however impatient you may be. After all the verb form is always (?) the same. Perhaps it's not such a shift after all. Be the people never so impatient may mean however impatient the people may be.
    Hi, TT. With the greatest respect (because your comments usually seem to me to be spot-on) I do think you have misread the psalm. To my mind (and this is only a gut feeling, not the comment of a grammarian) the 'be' is subjunctive and not imperative. The unusual, archaic word order complicates things, but I think it means, 'no matter how impatient the people may be', rather than 'Be not impatient, O ye people!". I think of analogous phrases such as 'Be he never so bold...'.
     

    Thomas Tompion

    Senior Member
    English - England
    Hi, TT. With the greatest respect (because your comments usually seem to me to be spot-on) I do think you have misread the psalm. To my mind (and this is only a gut feeling, not the comment of a grammarian) the 'be' is subjunctive and not imperative. The unusual, archaic word order complicates things, but I think it means, 'no matter how impatient the people may be', rather than 'Be not impatient, O ye people!". I think of analogous phrases such as 'Be he never so bold...'.
    My dear Elwintee,

    Flattery will get you everywhere, be it never so larded with criticism. In my own defence I would say that I became more and more conscious of the possibility of the meaning you suggest as I wrote, and included it at the end: if you didn't get that far you have my every sympathy.

    Look at this series of translations of this opening. By far the most common translation is let the people tremble, which is an imperative. An interesting alternative is the French which means, more or less, how the people tremble!. Of course, the problem with no matter how impatient the people, is that it is blasphemous, surely, to suggest that the people's impatience can have anything to do with how much of a king the Lord is.

    Nearer to the meaning which attracts us both is Wesley's transliteration of the psalm - neatly side-stepping the blasphemy, notice - in the hymn:

    THE Lord is King, and earth submits,
    Howe'er impatient, to his sway,
    Between the cherubim he sits,
    And makes his restless foes obey.

    It's interesting that the word order and perhaps the meaning too haven't changed much between Coverdale and Carlyle, though they sound pretty strange today.
     

    imchongjun

    Member
    Japan
    Hi, Thomas Tompion.
    I didn't realize I wrote the phrase in question in wrong order in the title box. Sorry for my absent-mindedness.
    Your argument with Elwintee is very interesting, since I am currently studying psalms, hymns, liturgies and so on. Thank you both.
     
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