Following up the ‘so’ argument

Posted on June 18, 2010



So while I was asleep over here in the UK the last blog post got picked up on Boing Boing and Anand Giridharadas’ site and gained me more views than all the previous posts put together. Naturally, I’m going to try and drive the subject into the ground in the hope of getting some return visits (and also because I find etymology really sadly interesting and thought I’d take a flick through some of the books on my shelf to try and unscientifically track ‘so’ as it goes through the ages).

As I and a bunch of people on both blogposts pointed out, the most instantly memorable starting date for ‘So’ as a sentence starter isn’t Silicon Valley in 1999, nor did it become hugely common in 2010 as Giridharadas seems to be trying to skew his article. Seamus Heaney’s “So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by…” is a translation, yes, but it does accurately represent “Hwaet” in modern (Hibernian) English.

People often get the definition of ‘epic poem’ wrong. Beowulf isn’t an epic poem in the sense that it’s about shiny, lofty worlds and beautiful men and women. It’s not epic in the sense of being god-like. It’s gritty, it’s well-worn and it’s exhausted, exhaustive and exhausting.

That ‘So’ is a matter-of-fact statement of what is to follow. ‘So,’ you’re about to see a man seeing off three monsters, the last of whom (Grendel) has been ravaging the hall of Heorot for years, stealing knights for her diet. There’s a Green Knight who comes in, challenges Beowulf and loses his head, then walks out promising revenge. It all seems fantastical, but so what? You have to believe it. So sets you in the right frame of mind. So also explains that this sort of thing is mundane in the world of the poet; it also explains that he’s put his life’s work into composing the world’s most popular English language poem, and that along the way he’s taken a lot out of himself (and killed off an awful lot of his characters). Like Vonnegut’s Tramalfadorian refrain of ‘So it goes’ – another earlier reference to ‘So’ beginning a sentence than the 1999 one posited by Giridharadas – the ‘So’ signifies the meaninglessness of death in such works.

So we’ve established the start in English (though it seems likely that somewhere there is an earlier reference, just one less well-known than ‘Hwaet’). Let’s go to the most famous author in the English tongue: Shakespeare.

Lafeu, in All’s Well That Ends Well (1601-8) says the following:

Do not plunge thyself too far in anger, lest thou
hasten thy trial; which if—Lord have mercy on thee
for a hen! So, my good window of lattice, fare thee
well: thy casement I need not open, for I look
through thee. Give me thy hand.

This gives the logical and attentive aspects that Giridharadas claims are the product of a computer-literate generation some four hundred years early.

But Hamlet, in his madness, can still use ‘So’ – but surely not logically?

I will tell you why. So shall my anticipation prevent your
discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no
feather. I have of late- but wherefore I know not- lost all my
mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so
heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the
air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical
roof fretted with golden fire- why, it appeareth no other thing
to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a
piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in
faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in
action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what
is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me- no, nor woman
neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

There are 8, 626 references to ‘so’ in Shakespeare’s corpus. Admittedly, only about 1 in 20 of the first 500 looked at were at the beginning of a sentence, but that still makes over 400 references (calculated as unscientifically as you can possibly calculate) in his work alone.

So earlier. Earlier than Shakespeare, earlier than the Beowulf poet – certainly earlier than Vonnegut and Silicon Valley. Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Again using translations, but Martin Hammond, a fairly faithful reproduction of the original Greek. In a otherwise unforgettable battle between Peiros and Thoas in The Iliad (chosen purely because it’s where my bookmark currently is) we have the following:

So those two lay stretched in the dust side by side, leading men both of them, one of the Thracians, the other of the bronze-clad Epieians. And many others were killed over them.

Homer (or, if you’re less romantic and more pragmatic as a classicist) wrote his epics in the 8th century BC – nearly 3,000 years ago.

Clytaemnestra, in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, line 1410 (Robert Fagles’, one of the doyens of classical criticism and theory, translation) says

So he goes down, and the life is bursting out of him -

great sprays of blood, and the muderous shower

wounds me, dyes me black and I, I revel

like the Earth when the spring rains come down,

the blessed gifts of god, and the new green spear

splits the sheath and rips to birth in glory!

I daresay there’s ‘so’s beginning sentences in the Bible and in Milton, too.

There is obviously an argument to be made that many of these (including the Beowulf reference which started it all) are modern translations of old texts. But they aren’t hugely free translations. Heaney had the help of Old English scholars; Fagles (translating Aeschylus, who died in 456BC) and Hammond (playing the role of Homer) are themselves well-recognised classicists with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their ancient languages and what modern word is a best fit for each ancient one. What the translation issue opens up is another question of legitimacy in translation, and aiming to capture the tone of the original (which may well be another blog post for another time).

But even if you discount Homer, Aeschylus and the Pearl poet, believed to be the writer of Beowulf, then you still have Shakespeare as an easily recognisable starting point, which easily pre-dates Giridharadas’ posited first date of use.

Do you have an earlier reference to ‘so’? Let me know in the comments below.

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