Hamlet: Madam, how like you this play?
Queen: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
- Hamlet Act 3
The language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible are now called Early Modern English
. It begins in 1470 with the Chancery Standard
and extends to 1650 when Oliver Cromwell
overthrew the monarchy in the English Civil War
You may recall from yesterday’s post that during the French occupation, English was “unregulated” and dialects flourished. But slowly English became respectable again and by the late 1300s leading writers like Chaucer published in the native tongue (with many French & Latin imported words). During the reign of King Henry V
(1413 to 1422) the chancery (government officials) were commanded to use English rather than Anglo-Norman
. An official printer of government documents, William Caxton
, selected the London dialect as the standard and he also standardized spellings for the first time. Prior to this (and even as late as the 1600-1700s) most people spelled phonetically; House was “Hus” in Old English and “Hows” in Middle English.
Sadly some official word spellings were based upon presumed etymological origins instead of actual usage. “Doutt” became “doubt” based upon the Latin ‘dubitare’. “dett” became “debt” from the Latin ‘debitum’. The french “voir dit” and “parfait” were changed to ‘verdict’ and ‘perfect’ to look more Latin. Early Modern also included some spelling confusion as the alphabet was still in flux: u and v were considered the same (‘v’ to start words, ‘u’ used inside words), ‘i’ and ‘j’ were interchangeable, silent ‘e’ could be added anywhere (“manne” for “man”), “Th” and “Y” were interchangeable at the start of words (giving us “Ye Olde Shoppe”).
The 1400’s also saw the start of a linguistic mystery – The Great Vowel Shift
. If an English speaker tries to spell words for a Spanish speaker (or any other Latin based language) confusion abounds. What we call “A” (as in hay) is spelled “e” in Spanish. What we call “E” (as in bee) is spelled “i” in Spanish. There were changes also in the O and U sounds. Theories abound but no one knows exactly why this happened or why some words were immune. The “ea” family of break, steak, great, and yea did not shift. Nor did the word “father”.
Foreign words aside, the oddity of English spelling is a combination of the Chancery Standard and the Great Vowel Shift. The Chancery Standard locked down official spelling regardless of how the words were actually spoken. As local pronunciation shifted and spelling remained the same, English was forced to assign new pronunciation to old vowels. Hence “be” is now “bee” not “bay”, “feet” was once pronounced as “fate”, and “wipe” was once spoken as “weep”.
The pronouns in Early Modern were much the same as today with three exceptions.
- “Thee” and “thou” was used as the informal, personal “you.” (‘You’ was the formal version.) Over centuries the informal “thee” declined in usage and now survives only in religious discourse. (Ironically “thee” is now considered formal usage!)
- ‘My’ and ‘thy’ became ‘mine’ and ‘thine’ before vowels just as ‘a’ becomes ‘an’; so “mine eyes” and “thine uncle”.
- The “arbitrary” gender of words began to be replaced with a practical gender. In Old English (and modern German) a wife “wif” was the neuter (it) gender, a young maiden was feminine. With Early Modern ‘he’ and ‘her’ more accurately reflected the gender of people and objects became “it”. The term “its” was being used for the first time (it appears once in the KJV Bible). But the old system faded slowly; in “The Merchant of Venice” Shakespeare wrote “How far that little candle throws his light”. Even today we still refer to ships as “she” and sometimes personify objects.
The word order of Early Modern settled into the patterns we use today. In Old English you could put words in any order since noun endings indicated the subject from the object from the dative (possessive). When the case endings started disappearing, Middle English adopted the subject/verb/object order like “I hit the ball” for declarative sentences. But Middle English question sentences were different, “Hit I the ball?” This changed during Early Modern when the Old English verb ‘do’ (I did this) was given extra work:
- Changing the way we phrase questions, “Do I hit the ball?”
- As an answer shortcut for verbs used in a question, “Do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”, “I do” (or “I will”) instead of “I do take”.
Early Modern also saw the transition of modal verbs, “shall”, “may”, “will”, etc. In Middle English (and modern German) the modals are transitive: “I can music” meant I have skill/learning/knowledge in music, “I will it” meant I want it or I shall use my force of will to make it so. Today the modals are intransitive (I can play music) and provide yet more ways to form question sentences, “Will you sit?”, “Shall I pay?.” The modals were co-opted to represent the subjunctive (counterfactural) case from Latin: “I only she would love me.”
Another verb change is a new way to indicate perfect tenses, “I have been waiting”, “I had been waiting” and “I am going to be waiting”. The “-ing” of verbs was firmly established in Early Modern. It started in the south in Middle English and spread north to replace “ende” and “ande” endings: lovande vs loving.
The most recognized verb difference in Early Modern is the usage of –(e)st for second person informal singular verbs and –(e)th for third person singular. So “I take” but “thou takest” and “he taketh”. You may also see some strong verbs that have not yet completed the Great Vowel Shift as in “Jesus spake unto the people.”
In the last posting I touched upon the growth of the English vocabulary via French and Latin. In Early Modern the language was on steroids. Some writers invented new words from Greek and Latin roots for poetic or scholarly effect. These are called “inkhorn terms” having sprung from the ink well of the writer. Examples include allurement, anachronism, dexterous, and mediate. Another source of new words was thru global trade, war, and New World exploration as England became a world class sea power. New words include:
- French: (New World) tomato, (war) alloy, duel, equip, volunteer, bombast, explore
- Spain: (New World) anchovy, banana, cannibal, cocoa, maize, potato, tobacco, (war) embargo, armada
- Italy: (Trade & Travel) balcony, granite, stanza, violin, volcano
- Dutch: (Sea Trade) smuggler, jib, schooner, reef, walrus, blunderbuss, tattoo, knapsack
- Arabic: sash, hashish, sherbet, sofa
- Turkish: coffee, kiosk, caftan
- Chinese: ketchup
- African: zebra
- North American Indians: raccoon, moose, skunk, hickory, totem, canoe
Early Modern was a Scientific Golden Age and new words were needed for discoveries in Natural Science, Match, and Philosophy: vertebra, torpor, specimen, lens, cylinder, prism, calculus, dogma, critic, propaganda. It was also a Golden Age of English poetry and plays – the meaning of many words were tweaked. “Ardent” and “flagrant” meant “on fire” (literally) but poets could imagine the heart on fire with ardent passion. Shakespeare described harts (i.e. deer) spanieling the hunter (i.e. following like a Spaniel dog).
It is to English’s credit that we allow the flexibility of turning verbs into nouns, nouns into adjectives, etc; that we are rich in tenses and verb cases; that we can invent words on the fly.
Labels: Bananas, English Language, History