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May 11, 2009 | by  | in Opinion |
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teh olden grammerz

“Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Have any of you ever heard this and thought: What the fuck was Juliet talking about? Why can’t she, and the rest of Shakespeare’s cronies, speak like normal?
Well, if you have ever studied Shakespeare—and I haven’t—then you would know that in his time (around the 16th Century), English was a little different than it is today, known as Early Modern English. In fact, some of its features were quite similar to modern-day German, which is one of the reasons it interests me.

For starters, what’s with this “wherefore art thou” crap? Back in the day, there were two ways of speaking to somebody—formally with ye/you or informally with thou/thee, just like there is in many other modern-day languages. The situations you would use the different forms for speaking differ between the languages and cultures. In German, for example, you would speak informally to your friends and people of similar social status (e.g., other students if you are a student, people of a similar age, your family), and formally to someone when there is a significant gap between your statuses (e.g., your boss or teacher, an older person, an official, the king or queen, etc).

The difference between the formal and informal tones is what pronoun you use to address the person or persons, and the conjugation of the verb.

Exhibit G:

First person singular Second person plural and formal singular
Second person informal singular
Who?
I ye (modern you) thou who
me you thee whom
myself yourself, yourselves thyself whom
my your thy whose
mine yours thine Cannot divide by zero.

Verbs in the formal tone conjugated much the same as they do now, whereas with the informal tone the (regular) verbs take the suffix -(e)st. The conjugation of verbs in the second person singular were also different, taking the -(e)th suffix.

For example:

Formal Informal
“Have ye contracted that velociraptor disease from yonder peasents?”
“Nay; it is from sleeping with your mother I have it. Whence cometh yours?”
“…Ye are a cunt.”*
“Said of you also.”
“Hast thou contracted that velociraptor disease from yonder peasants?”
“Nay; it is from sleeping with thy mother I have it. Whence cometh thine?”
“…Thou art a cunt.”
“Said of thee also.”

*It probably would have sounded odd to insult someone in a formal tone.

So what does this mean?

It means that Juliet is saying something like “Romeo, Romeo, what are you for Romeo?”
Wherefore is an archaic term that means something like ‘what for’ or ‘for what purpose’. Other such words include whither (where to) and whence (where from).
Juliet’s line makes a bit more sense now, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

It also means that, somewhere in the development of the English language, we’ve stopped talking informally altogether. When I think of modern English being spoken entirely in the formal tone, and if it had the implied social gaps that you get with German… It just seems bizarre. Of course, with modern English there is no such implied social gap, and we can still talk to our mateys. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either—many Germans feel their age when youngsters start addressing them in the formal tone.

Interestingly enough, some remnants of Early Modern English have survived until today. The whole whom thing is being ignored at large by modern English speakers (If you pretend its not there, maybe it’ll go away?)(see exhibit G). And you’ve probably heard your grandmother say something like “Believe you me” or “Mind you”, which are actually Early Modern English formal imperatives (commands). With modern English, to tell someone to do something, you would say:
“Oh shit. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. Grab the shovel, we need to bury him before anyone sees!”
In Early Modern English, you would follow the verb with the formal pronoun to form the imperative:
“Oh bugger. What a bunch of cockered earth-vexing clotpoles! Grab ye the entrenching tool, we must make haste and inter him with nary an onlooker!”

Questions about grammerz? Email me at mikey@salient.org.nz.

Acknowledgements

Shakespeare.
The guy who delivered the Red Bull.

Disacknowledgements
A certain Nexus Editor whose presence in the office last Monday was not very conducive to work.
Rory and his Boney M.

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About the Author ()

Mikey learned everything he knows about English Grammar in an MSN chat room when he was 13. Believing that people don't say "LOL" enough in everyday conversation, he has made it his mission to teach the world about grammerz one person at a time.

Comments (1)

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  1. Stella says:

    Dude, your grammar articles totally rock! You even use examples I can relate to.

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