Everyone's a Linguist: More on 'Coming With'

By Deborah Fallows
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By Deborah Fallows

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Many readers wrote in about my recent post on how so many South Dakotans end a sentence with with. As in, “Are you coming with?” instead of “Are you coming with us?” And as shown in the map above, from Joshua Katz at NC State.

Most suggested that this construction comes from German or one of the Scandinavian languages. (South Dakota’s ethnic makeup is about 40% German and 15% Norwegian). I agree! Here are two emails to represent the rest:

I wonder: are there many people in Sioux Falls of German ancestry? Because "coming with" is good German: the verb mitkommen, or in interrogative form, Kommen Sie mit? literally translates as "Are you coming with?"

And:

I am not a linguist, but I have a theory. Much of the upper Midwest was settled by Germans. The verb "come along" is mitkommen as opposed to simply "come" for kommen. In a sentence, however, the mit often is moved to the end of the sentence.

Everyone is a linguist!

I decided to email my dissertation supervisor and go-to linguistics guru, who is also a specialist in Germanic languages. That is Bob King, now retired from the linguistics department at the University of Texas at Austin, where I did my graduate work (Hook ‘em!). He confirmed:

"Come with," also "go with" ("Are you going with?"), is an upper Midwest thing, where you had the bulk of settlers from Germany, Norway, Sweden, and some from Holland. All of those languages have the "come with" thing… Norwegian especially, but also Swedish and Dutch.

I asked him about other German enclaves in America, like Texas and Cincinnati. He wrote:

“I have never heard it in Texas German, now on its last legs but alive when I came here in the Sixties. I wouldn't be surprised if Texas German does have it but I just haven't heard it… But it certainly hasn't spread to English--you never hear it here except among upper Midwest transplants.

And he added an interesting bonus from a historical perspective:

“When I studied in Germany (in the late ‘50’s) I feel like one didn't say Kommen Sie mit? and so on as much as they do now. The language was more formal fifty years ago, the du--Sie distinction more rigidly enforced, and I remember saying and hearing Kommen Sie? as normal. Adding the mit softens it, the way adding things frequently does: "He is Jewish" sounds nicer than "He is a Jew." Like Kommen Sie mit! in the imperative sounds less Gestapo-like than Kommen Sie!

I’m going to be on the lookout for other “softeners” in regional English usage. Wait until we get to Texas, where using one qualifier like might, would, or could isn’t enough. There, “might could” – a double softener – prevails. English usage can seem to go to extremes compared with, say, Chinese. For example, when in China, the way to decline an offer from a waiter for water is bu yao! (don’t want; don’t need). In English, we tend to add a lot of padding and softening: “Oh no thanks, not right now. Maybe later. But thanks!” I wrote about this in Dreaming in Chinese.

Please send me your stories about sentence-final with! or other regionalisms I should be watching for. The address is debfallows at gmail.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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