Tag Archives: Shakesperean language

The Editor Eats Humble Pie, or: It’s Okay To Change Your Mind

I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.

The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.

“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?

img_20170109_102550

I did wear boots today, and very glad I was for them.

“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!

So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.

In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.

“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?

 

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Speaking Shakespearean

800px-ShakespeareSo the Internet was flooded with Shakespeariana the last few days, thanks to the big 400-year anniversary of his death last Saturday, April 23rd, 2016. I kind of missed it, as I don’t go online as much on the weekend, which is why I’m only now weighing in on the issue. But my excuse is that today is the Great Man’s Christening Day (452 years! Significant figure!), so that’s still an anniversary and I can still shove in my oar on the celebrations.

Did you know that even though we celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd of April (the same day he died), we don’t actually know exactly when he was born? I think they (whoever “they” are) just picked the 23rd because it’s convenient so we don’t have to remember more than one date for his birth and death. And because he was christened on the 26th, and it was, apparently, traditional that babies were baptised three days after birth. That must be a peculiarly English custom, though; in Renaissance Germany baptism happened just one day post-partum (that’s how they decided Martin Luther’s birthday must be November 10th, based on his baptismal day).

Anyway, with all this Shakespeare stuff floating around the ‘net, I was reminded of one of my pet peeves. This link demonstrates it quite nicely: there’s a quite funny “translation” of some lyrics by Drake (whom I don’t know anything about other than this clip) into “Shakespearean language”. Except that it’s not. The “translator” falls prey to a very common misconception, which is that to make something sound Shakespearean, all you have to do is attach “th” to the end of every verb, and toss in a sprinkling of “thou”. You know, as in “thou randomly chucketh stuff around and hopeth thou soundeth like Romeo.”

Well, I hate to tell you, but all it does it make you sound like the Shakespearean equivalent of a LOLcat (“I has cheezeburger.”). Now, to avoid your embarrassing yourself further on this issue, let me explain how this “thou” and “sayeth” stuff works(eth).

It breaks up into two parts. First, let’s tackle the thou’s and thee’s, because that’s not quite as complicated as the verbs. What we want for the purpose is a nice little grid, like so:

Singular

Plural

First Person

I

we

Second Person

thou

you

Third Person

he/she/it

they

You see, the “thou” is just an old form of saying “you” – in fact, “you” is the old plural, “you two” (or “y’all”, if you’re from the Southern States). Even though “thou” sounds old-fashioned and formal today, it was actually informal and a bit rude, sort of along the lines of “Hey you!”, which is why it fell out of favour. So, what about the “thee” and “thy” stuff? Simple – they’re forms of “thou” just like “me” and “my” are variants of “I”. So whenever you’d say “me”, use “thee”; for “my” or “mine”, “thy” or “thine”: “He hit me, because my face annoyed him; he said the fault was mine,” or “He hit thee, because thy face annoyed him; he said the fault was thine.” To put it in another nice grid:

first person

second person

third person

subjective case

I

thou

he/she/it

objective case

(he hits) me

(he hits) thee

(he hits) him/her/it

possessive case

my (house)

thy (house)

his/hers/its (house)

Okay, now what about the LOLcats and their cheezeburger? Where does the “hath” come in? Quite simple: Renaissance people had a perpetual lisp. Wherever we put an “s” on the end of a verb, they put a “th”. (Completely off topic, I just found out there’s a special character for “th”, Þ, and it’s called a thorn. Cool, eh?) The third person singular (see above) present tense verb in modern English takes an -s: he jumps, she walks, it has; in old English, it takes a -th (or -eth): he jumpeth, she walketh, it hath. So, an actual Shakespearean LOLcat, messing up its first and third persons, would say “I hath cheezeburger,” or probably more like “I hath an eel pie” (or some such thing).

Now, in modern English, the third person singular is the only case in which the verb changes. But in old English, the second person singular also got its own verb ending, namely -st (or -est). So, whenever you pull out a “thou”, you also need to slap an “-est” on the verb that goes with it: thou jumpest, thou walkest, thou hast. To grid it:

Singular

Plural

First Person

I jump/have/do

we jump/have/do

Second Person

thou jumpest/hast/dost

(modern: you jump/have/do)

you jump/have/do

Third Person

he jumpeth/hath/doth

(modern: he jumps/has/does)

they jump/have/do

That’s why you get: “Methinks the lady doth protest too much,” or if you say it straight to someone’s face: “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”

So, now you know. All you need to do is add a sprinkling of “alas”, “forsooth”, “methinks”, or “knave”, and thou art all set to quaff a flagon of ale with Falstaff, Hamlet and Prince Hal.

Life, the Universe, Thou and Hath. Alas, forsooth, methinks thou hast heard enough of my pontification. I prithee that thou takest it not amiss.

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