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

By James Fallows

 

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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/09/everyones-a-linguist-more-on-coming-with/279596/