Friday 24 February 2012

On reciting

A correspondent writes to ask 'Why is it that we 'play' at a recital, and 'recite' in a play?' This is one of those nice juxtapositions which makes me love English so much. It seems perverse until you look carefully at the history of the two words, and then you find it isn't as crazy as it seems.

Play is one of the oldest verbs in the language. It turns up in Old English in several senses, including the musical sense of playing an instrument and the dramatic sense of a theatrical performance, and these usages have developed in parallel ever since. Nothing special to note here.

Recite is the interesting one. It's found in English from the 1430s, and originally was restricted to written or spoken language activity. Someone was said to recite poems, words, speeches, and suchlike. And the result of this action was a recital - though people have never felt entirely comfortable with this noun. Several other nouns have been used for the action of reciting, such as a recite, a reciting, a recitation, and a recitement. Nouns for the person doing the reciting have varied too: the OED has examples of recitant, reciter, recitationist, and recitator. And even the verb produced a variant: to recitate, with examples of usage still occasionally found today.

But towards the end of the 15th century we see a natural development in the direction of music, when the verb is used to describe the chanting or intoning of a religious text, such as a psalm. The first recorded usage, in Caxton's Mirror of the World (1481), illustrates a new contrast between 'saying' and 'reciting': 'The Orysons that ben sayd and recyted euery day in the chirches.' This is the link to the modern musical sense of recital, though it took some time to emerge - not until the mid 18th century, in fact, when we encounter the word referring to a performance of a single piece of music, or a selection from a single composer, by a soloist or small group of musicians. Other terms developed too, notably recitative (first recorded usage, 1654) for a style of musical declamation intermediate between singing and speech, as heard in the narrative sections of an opera or oratorio.

As a result of this, recital is now ambiguous. 'I'm going to a recital' could be either poetry or music. At the end of the 19th century, there was an apparent attempt to keep the two senses apart. We encounter 'recitalist' for someone who gives a recital of music or dance, with reciter continuing to be used for speech. The distinction never caught on, though such usages as 'concert recitalist' are attested into the present century. However, what makes this development especially interesting is that the musical sense developed only in the noun. The verb sense stayed with speech. Musicians don't recite; only poets (etc) do.


David Crosbie said...

I personally can't use recite for what actors do in plays — not do I see any examples in the OED quotations. For me the word is deliver (or speak, of course).

Marc Leavitt said...

Professor Crystal:
A glance at the score of an Italian opera or oratorio will include the designation "recitativo." Did we gain this usage from the continent?

DC said...

It depends on whether the passage from the play is being treated as an extract to be specially performed. Certainly I've found no shortage of examples online of people using recite in that way, e.g. Hamlet reciting a speech for the players. But no, agreed, I wouldn't use it as a general term for what actors do.

DC said...

Marc: the OED has three entries for recitativo - accompagnato, secco. and stromentato, all from Italian with first citations from the 19th century.

Steve said...

I'm reminded of something a Canadian friend said: 'We park on he driveway, and drive on the parkway'. All part of Life's rich pattern!