Alex Steer

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Learning linguistics with Dizzee Rascal

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Linguistic matters can crop up in all sorts of places. Here's one from the lyrics to a song that's hanging around in the Top 10, Dance Wiv Me, by Dizzee Rascal vs Calvin Harris:

Get away from the bar Tell your boyfriend hold your jar And dance wiv me.

What might sound a bit odd here is the sentence, Tell your boyfriend hold your jar.

Tell, like other verbs of command or request, takes a dative object and the infinitive with to when it's used to form phrases of indirect command. Indirect command is a kind of indirect speech. I told Bob to clean his room is an indirect command; the direct command that it occasions or implies is the Clean your room (to Bob). Other kinds of indirect speech include indirect questions (Ask Tim if he wants a pint occasions Do you want a pint?) and indirect statements (Remind Nell that her dog needs feeding occasions Your dog needs feeding).

Assuming we know that jar is slang for 'drink', there would be nothing odd about the phrase Tell your boyfriend to hold your jar, just as there is nothing odd about Ask your friend to phone the police, or Order the troops to clean their boots. The line from the song is odd because it uses the base form of the verb: the infinitive, minus the 'to'.

There are verbs in English that take an object plus the base form. Most of them are causative verbs: verbs which, unlike tell or ask, make things happen, rather than just requesting or commanding that they happen. These verbs include let, have, and make: I let him sleep on the floor, I had him weed the patio, I made him sell the car. All of these take the base form, not the infinitive: it would be odd to say I made him to sell the car in modern English. (In Middle English and Early Modern English it was acceptable.)

(This can't, by the way, be an under-punctuated bit of direct speech. It's not 'Tell your boyfriend, "Hold your jar."' That would imply that the jar belonged to the boyfriend, not the person being asked to dance, and would make no real sense.)

It's probably unwise to assume that Dizzee Rascal and Calvin Harris are showing off an instance of a widespread change in the usage of tell. Another Dizzee Rascal song, You Were Always, you'll find the line:

You were always Telling me to do this Telling me to do that.

This suggests (to go a bit Chomskyan) an oddity in performance, not in competence. Rascal and Harris clearly don't have different rules for forming indirect command phrases from the rest of us. Nor is this an error in performance (since any song is necessarily fairly deliberate), nor apparently a deliberate sociolinguistic trick (they're not impersonating any kind of language or discourse). It's an arbitrary variation of a grammatical rule by an individual language-user, which is interesting enough to send us all scurrying to Google Scholar to find out whether existing theories of syntax allow for deliberate intra-speaker syntactic variability.

Or you could just go and listen to some other music instead.

# Alex Steer (13/08/2008)