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Shakespearean Expressions that Sound Illiterate by Today‘s Standards

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.                               Twitter: @farooqkperogi In my July 19, 2015 article titled “ Response to t...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.                              
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

In my July 19, 2015 article titled “Response to the Critique of my Critique of Buhari’s Inaugural Speech,” I promised to write on expressions Shakespeare used that are now regarded as solecistic by the standards of modern grammar. I am fulfilling that promise this week.

While Shakespeare is often touted as one of the greatest writers that ever wrote in the English language, it helps to realize that there are several conventions of English usage during his time that are unacceptable by today’s norms. I will highlight only a few in this article, using examples from some of Shakespeare’s iconic works.

1 Archaic words. It goes without saying that several of the words Shakespeare used in the 1500s and the 1600s have gone out of circulation. For instance, in Shakespeare’s time, “afeard” meant “afraid.” That’s why in A Midsummer Night's Dream Snout says, “Will not the ladies be afeard of the lion?”).

 “Holp” was the past tense of “help.” In Act 1 Scene 2 of Richard III, Richard says, “Let him thank me that holp to-send him thither.”  (Note that “tither” is now “there” in contemporary Modern English.) 

Similarly, in Shakespeare’s time, “learn” meant “teach.” That is why, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says, “Learn me how to lose a winning match.” A contemporary Modern English version of this sentence would be, “Teach me how to lose a winning match.”

I give these examples because they curiously survive in Appalachian English, an “inferior,” low-prestige dialect of English that is spoken in some poor, coal-mining parts of the United States in the Appalachian Mountains. I had a student in one of my classes this past summer who spoke Appalachian English. Each time he switched to Appalachian English, he was often unintelligible. Americans who only speak Standard English also find Appalachian English incomprehensible.

2. No difference between subjective and objective pronouns. In contemporary Modern English we fuss over the distinctions between subjective pronouns (such as “I,” “she,”  “he,” “we,” “they,” “who,” etc.) and their objective forms (such as “me,” “her,” “him,”  “us,” “them,” “whom,” etc.). Subjective pronouns are the doers of action in a sentence (such as “I gave him”) and objective pronouns are recipients of the action (such as “It is for ME.”) Following this logic, “you and I” is used as the subject of a sentence (thus, synonymous with “we”) and “you and me” is used as the object of a sentence (thus, synonymous with “us”).

In Shakespeare’s time this distinction didn’t exist. That’s why in The Merry Wives Of Windsor Act 4 Scene 4, a character says, “And he my husband best of all affects.” The “he” in the sentence would be rendered as “him” in today’s Standard English because “my husband” is the recipient, not the doer, of the action in the sentence.

In Othello Act 4 Scene 2, the character Othello says, “Yes, you have seen Cassio and she together.” Today’s Standard English would render the sentence as, “Yes, you have seen Cassio and HER together.” “You” is the subject of the sentence and “Cassio and her” are the objects. Again, in Coriolanus Act II Scene 1 Menenius Agrippa says, “Pray you, who does the wolf love?” In contemporary Modern English, that would be, “Pray you, WHOM does the wolf love?”

 I should add, however, that contemporary Modern English seems to be returning to the usage convention that doesn’t distinguish between subjective pronouns and objective pronouns. The shift hasn’t quite taken place yet—at least not formally—but it’s going in that direction. The objective pronoun “whom,” for instance, is becoming obsolete.  Apparently, the evolution of language isn’t always linear; it is sometimes cyclical.

Another instance of the cyclical evolution of usage convention is the use of “they” and “their” as genderless singular pronouns (e.g. “Everybody should bring THEIR book” or “If a student has questions THEY should ask THEIR teacher”). This practice predates contemporary modern English by at least 600 years. It was the usage norm in Shakespeare’s time. Now people who are ignorant of the history of “they” and “their” as genderless singular pronouns think it’s a modern linguistic barbarism invented to satisfy feminist agitations for gender inclusivity in language.

 Well, the use of the singular “they” and “their” is becoming respectable again in spite of the protests of misguided purists. As the late William “Bill” Safire used to say, "When enough of us are wrong, we're right."

3. Shakespeare’s subjects and verbs don’t always agree. Ignorance of subject-verb agreement rules is one of the most obvious signs of functional illiteracy (in English) in modern times. We’ve been taught that a singular subject (such as “Musa” agrees with a singular verb (such as “has,” “is,” “goes,” etc.) so that a construction like “Musa has to agree that he is responsible for what goes on there” is considered grammatically correct. A reversal such as “Musa have to agree that he are responsible for what go on there” would be considered illiterate by the standards of contemporary Modern English. The reverse is also true: plural subjects (such as “people” or “Musa and his children”) agree with plural verbs (such as “have,” “are,” “go,” etc.

This elementary grammar rule didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time, as you can see in the following dialogue in Richard II:  “These high wild hills and rough uneven ways/ Draws out our miles, and makes them wearisome.” This is classic subject-verb disagreement. “These high wild hills and rough uneven ways” is a plural subject. Therefore, the verb that follows it should be plural as well. But what do we see? Singular verbs (that is, “draws” and “makes”). In contemporary usage, the sentence would be rewritten as, “These high wild hills and rough uneven ways/ Draw out our miles, and make them wearisome.”

Again, in Julius Caesar (Act I Scene III), we come across this sentence: “Three parts of him is ours already,” which would be “Three parts of him ARE ours already” in contemporary English.
Similarly, in Act 3 Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Quince says, “But there is two hard things: that is, to bring the moonlight into a chamber.” In contemporary Modern English, we would say, “But there are two hard things….”

Note, however, that this sort of subject-verb discord survives in contemporary informal spoken English. Native English speakers often say something like, “There’s 10 people in the room.” Note, too, that this usage is acceptable only when “there is” is contracted to “there’s.” Saying “there is 10 people” would be considered illiterate, but “there’s 10 people” is acceptable in spoken English—and in the representation of spoken English in writing.

4. Double negatives. Use of double negatives (such as “I don’t know nothing” or “I don’t like nobody” or “I don’t need no grammar lesson”) is one of the biggest grammatical taboos of contemporary Standard English. We are taught that two negatives cancel each other out to produce a positive, so that “I don’t know nothing” would mean “I know something,” “I don’t like nobody” would mean “I like somebody,”  and  “I don’t need no grammar lesson” would mean “I need a grammar lesson.”

But double negatives were used for emphasis and intensification of meaning, and that tradition survives in nonstandard, low-prestige English varieties (such as Appalachian English, African-American Vernacular English also called Ebonics, Cockney, etc.) and in pop music.

Like other English users of his time, Shakespeare used double negatives for emphasis. In Henry IV Part I, he wrote: “Nor never could the noble Mortimer/Receive so many, and all willingly.” And in Richard III, he wrote: “You may deny that you were not the mean/Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.” If he lived now, he would most certainly have written, “You may deny that you were the mean/ Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.”

5. Double comparatives and double superlatives. As I wrote in my July 19, 2015 article, in modern grammar, it’s taboo to modify an adjective using “more” and the “er” suffix simultaneously, such as “more taller.” That is called the error of double comparatives. It’s also taboo to modify an adjective using “most” and the “est” suffix simultaneously, such as “most tallest.” That’s called the error of double superlatives.

As Kenneth G. Wilson points out in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, “Shakespeare … and other Renaissance writers used double comparison to add vigor, enthusiasm, and emphasis, and so do young children and other unwary speakers of Nonstandard English today, but the eighteenth-century grammarians seem to have prevailed, and one comparison per adjective is all today’s Standard English will allow.”

Apart from the “most unkindest cut of all” that I mentioned in my article of July 19, several examples can be found in other Shakespearean works. For example, in The Tempest, Shakespeare wrote: “And his more braver daughter could control thee.” In Julius Caesar, he wrote: “With the most boldest and best hearts of Rome.”

Concluding thoughts
Language is never static. It’s always in a state of flux. That’s why you can’t always invoke the standards of a bygone era to justify usage in a current era. When I was news editor of the Weekly Trust in 1999 or 2000, we once cast a headline that read: “ABU goes gay for NUGA.” By “gay” we meant “happy and full of fun,” a definition of the word that still exists in dictionaries. But most of our readers justifiably understood the word in its current popular meaning of homosexual, and flooded us with angry calls and emails. We learned a hard lesson: language changes, and how people actually use and understand language is more important than what some dictionary says.

Celebrated English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, remembered for writing the Canterbury Tales, didn’t come to terms with the reality of the perpetually changing property of language when he boasted, in the 1300s, that the English language had reached its final form and was incapable of any further improvement. Interestingly, no modern English speaker can understand his boast without the help of an interpreter!

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