Tuesday November 21, 2006

Take on Me

Those of you who are of a certain age (or who watch too much VH1) will remember the mid-80's synth-pop video I'm thinking about. You know the one: it features a main character who enters a comic book world, a group of leather-clad toughs, and the lead singer of the band bravely rescuing a blonde damsel in distress.

Of course I'm referring to this classic video:

OK, I admit it, I was pulling your leg.  (It's weird how the same "world within a comic book" idea turned up in that video as well, don't you think?  Unpleasant racial subtext, though.  And I wonder if Midge Ure did his own stunts?)

Anyway, the actual song I wanted to talk about is "Take on Me" by the Norwegian band a-ha.  (In fact, as far as I'm concerned, they're really are the Norwegian band.  Are there any others?)  If you haven't seen the video, or haven't seen it in a while, take three minutes and forty-three seconds to watch it now.  It holds up:

(I never noticed before just now that, right before Evil Wrench Guy slides into the frame with his sinister racing buddy Number 13—are they from the Alpha Team?—she's dancing for her new sequential art boyfriend.  That's kind of sweet...and possibly a little creepy.)

The Wife and I were watching this video the other day on German TV.  It was a karaoke show, so the words to the song were shown in subtitles at the bottom of the screen.  I'd never really parsed or thought about the lyrics before.  They're a little...puzzling.  Example: the last line to the chorus, which Morten Harket sings in his impressively near-ultrasonic falsetto, is "I'll be gone in a day or two"?  Um, is that more romantic-sounding in Norwegian?

Does this post have a "Linguistics" tag on it?  I guess I should add some linguistic content.  When I saw the words printed out on the screen, it struck me for the first time that the title of the song isn't a very natural-sounding English sentence.  Here's what I mean.  English phrasal verbs that take direct objects like take on have the property that the object can appear either before or after the particle.  That means the following are both good sentences:

(1) We'll take some new employees on

(2) We'll take on some new employees

It's a little bit different with pronouns, though—if a phrasal verb has a pronoun as its direct object, the pronoun must come before the particle.  Otherwise it sounds wrong (to my ear):

(3) We'll take them on

(4) * We'll take on them

I'm not sure why this is the way English works, but there it is.  (There's probably a whole chapter about it in the Cambridge Grammar, but I don't have a copy handy.)  It seems clear that whoever wrote the words to the song was familiar with the alternation in word order—notice that both take on me and take me on are used in the chorus—but didn't know that one of the orders doesn't sound quite right with pronouns.  I know very little about Norwegian, but I wonder if this might be the result of translating an analogous Norwegian construction word for word.  Does anyone know if Norwegian has a similar verb-and-particle construction, and if so, whether it allows both the verb-pronoun-particle and verb-particle-pronoun orders?

Of course, all this talk about phrasal verbs doesn't address the central question: what exactly does he mean by "take on me", anyway?  Is he asking her to contend with him?  To hire him?  What, in short, the hell?

Want to earn some extra credit?  Go through the video for "Take on Me" and look for subtle clues that, in spite of the "ice cold MILK" sign in the diner window, the video doesn't really take place in the U.S.  (Call it "The Mentos Effect".)  Here, I'll get you started: the heroine is reading a comic book about motorcycle racing.  When was the last time you saw a motorcycle racing comic in an American comic book store?  No, translated manga doesn't count.

Finally, if you've ever wondered what happened to the rotoscoped lovers of "Take On Me", here's your chance to find out.  The end of their story is told in the first minute or so of a-ha's followup video, "The Sun Always Shines on TV".  Fair warning, though: not since Alien³ has the beginning of a sequel so casually ruined the happy ending of its prequel for no perceptible reason.  Brace yourself:

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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I did my homework!

Peter Svenonius at the University of Tromsø has a pan-Scandinavian account of the exact phenomenon you're curious about.

Here's the relevant data which, near as I can tell, was presented at a workshop in 1996 (link to paper at the bottom):

(27)a. Vi kastet {ut} hunden {ut}. (Norwegian)
we threw out the.dog out
"We threw {out} the dog {out}"

Same variation that we see in English. Particle is okay both before an after the NP. Svenonius says this is a bit idealized, but who really cares because what we're after is in the next IGT where NPs are swapped with pronouns. Svenonius describes the situation like this, "As in English, unstressed pronouns must proceed the particle, as illustrated in (29)"
(29) a. Vi kastet {*ut} den {ut}. (Norwegian)
we threw out it out
"We threw it out"

Can you say things like "take on me" in Norwegian? The answer appears to be no. But then again, "take on me" might still be a literal translation for a completely different reason, perhaps because the Norwegian expression doesn't involve a particle (of course what "the expression" actually is has been called into question).
And in the band's defense, when I think a-ha, I think cutting-edge, I think "straddling the boundary between avant-garde and genius". Saying something that's unlicensed by grammar (both theirs and ours), and saying it over and over again, may just come with the territory.


Posted by: Mercurius at Nov 21, 2006 9:14:48 PM

As a native speaker of Norwegian, I wondered if the first verse of the chorus isn't an over-literal translation of the Norwegian "ta på meg", ie. "touch me". But if you swap the word order, as in the second verse, it stops making sense. So I suppose you'll have to ask mr. Harket, or whoever wrote the lyrics.

Posted by: Arnt Richard Johansen at Nov 22, 2006 4:55:28 AM

I think the condiments on the cafe table are a dead giveaway that the live action parts were shot in the UK: white pepper, brown sauce and malt vinegar. Only the Brits.

Posted by: Graham Higgins at Nov 22, 2006 11:07:07 AM

I'm not sure what the linguistic connection is, if any, but when I played the first video, my cat went up and sniffed the computer monitor right where the video was playing.

Posted by: mike at Nov 22, 2006 6:59:22 PM

Interesting that you mention the milk sign as suggesting a US diner; I thought that was one of the obvious signs that it was a UK location. ("Nice cold ice cold milk" was the slogan of an 80s advertising campaign here.)

Posted by: pm215 at Nov 24, 2006 5:02:51 PM

"I'll be gone in a day or two"? Um, is that more romantic-sounding in Norwegian?

Are you kidding? That's one of the oldest romantic cliches in the book: Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying -- love me tonight, 'cause I'm a travelin' man and I gotta be movin' on, babe. For some reason, teenage girls tend to be more susceptible to this appeal than women who have actually been through such wild flings.

As for "take on me," it's so unacceptable I assumed that the title was short for "(What's Your) Take on Me?" But I don't expect good English out of Scandinavian rockers.

Posted by: language hat at Nov 26, 2006 6:28:21 AM

Tangentially related: Family Guy take on "Take On Me."

Posted by: FS at Apr 12, 2007 1:21:29 PM

"I'll be gone in a day or two"? Um, is that more romantic-sounding in Norwegian?

--I think that it is extremely romantic...it just has to be interpreted "correctly". You have to remember that he is a comic book character: how often do you get an offer from your "perfect prince charming" (in this case an animated figure), the one you dream about which can never materialize...but now is, to come to real life just to be with you. Offers like that only come around once in a light-year. The offer isn't there forever (CARPE DIEM!), but if she accepts it...he will stay for good. I liken it to my own "love life". We can't wait forever. Mr. or Ms. Right is probably out there looking for you, but if you refuse to date, then you will never meet him or her. "It's no better to be safe then sorry"...we have to take a chance, it's living.

I think the "take on me" sounds very appropriate for the song. He wants her to take a chance on him. It's not every blonde girl he offers his hand, or his heart to.

The song overall gets under your skin. I never get tired of it (given, my discovery was made less than a week ago...it was "before my time"). It's an oddly comforting song.

I think her dorky dancing just shows that he has unconditional love for her. It also shows that she understands how important music is for him, supports it, and wants to be part of his life.

PS--Again I repeat, once she has "taken him on", it is forever! I cannot imagine, or support, an image of "true love" that does not endure through eternity. But, that's my imagination. Also, I don't know how or why I found a random old article (to give a random comment on) at one in the morning, when I have class first thing (I am tired!)

Posted by: Becca at Sep 26, 2007 9:57:09 PM