Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elizabethan Grammar

Queen Elizabeth I reigned in England from 1558-1603, an important time for English literature. During the 16th century, The English language modernized into the form we know it today - modern English. Before this time, English was spelled in a completely different, archaic manner, as shown in this example by Chaucer (1343-1400):

Introduction to The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English:
     "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
     The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
     And bathed every veyne in swich licour
     Of which vertu engendred is the flour;"

All that had changed by the 16th century. Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote in modern English, using the same grammar we use today... well, except for a few small differences - holdovers from an earlier era...

These differences include: pronouns (zámeno), conjugation (časovanie), swallowing consonants (spoluhlásky).

Now, before I explain more, you may be asking yourself,

"Why do I have to learn some stupid grammar that's 500 years old! No one talks like this anymore!"

The answer is, it's important.

Here's why. You see, Shakespeare and other writers of his time were so good, that every other writer in the English language since then tried to emulate them, at least a little. His way of writing was so grandiose, formal, and noble, it made everything he said sound important.

So, even though people didn't speak like Shakespeare 200 years later, they still wrote like him, regardless if they were British, American, Australian, or whatever. And they still do today, in places you wouldn't think to look. Marvel Comic's Thor speaks in Elizabethan English:

You need to learn this grammar so you can understand everything that follows for the next 400 years.

Don't worry, it's simple - Just three things!


Shakespeare and other writers sometimes wrote 'you' in their poems. But, sometimes they used other words that mean the same thing. Sometimes they wrote:

Thou (rhymes with cow) - Nominative case, singular.
Example: Thou art a good student.

Sometimes they wrote:

Thee (rhymes with me) - Accusative, singular
Example: I love thee. I give thee all my love.

Why so many words that mean the same thing? Well, remember Shakespeare was a poet. He wanted to write things that rhyme, and he was worried about rhythm and meters and alliteration, etc. And, he was emulating a form of poetry called the sonnet, which came from Italy. Writing poetry that rhymes in Italian is easier because all the words end in vowels (samohlásky). It's a lot harder in English, so English poets needed more word choices to produce quality poetry. So, sometimes he'd say 'you', sometimes 'thou', and sometimes 'thee'.

The Elizabethan form of 'your' is:

Thy (rhymes with my) - possessive adjective, singular
Example: Where is thy homework?

The Elizabethan form of 'yours' is:

Thine (rhymes with mine) - possessive pronoun, singular
Example: Is this notebook thine?

The Elizabethan form is:

Example: If thou wantest the job done right, do it thyself.

Conjugation in Elizabethan times was mostly the same as today. The only changes are in the present simple and past simple.

Present Simple
Is mostly the same. The only change is in the 2nd and 3rd person singular.

2nd person, add a 't, st, or est'
3rd person, add a 'th, or eth'

Modern                      Elizabethan
You are                       Thou art
You have                    Thou hast
He has                         He hath
You see                      Thou seest (two syllables)
He sees                       He seeth (two syllables)

Past Simple
In Elizabethan English, there are two forms for the past simple - you have two options - all to help plan your rhythm and meter in poetry. And, the 2nd person singular adds an -st, or -est.

Modern                   Elizabethan
You had                Thou hadst,     or    Thou didst have
You saw               Thou sawest,   or    Thou didst see
I had                     I had,               or    I did have
He saw                 He saw,           or    He did see

Swallowing Consonants
This is easy. Sometimes, instead of writing an entire word, like 'over', Shakespeare would write: o'er. It's the same word, just meant to be read faster. It mimics the English accent and helps change the word from two syllables to one - again, for purposes of planning rhythm and meter.

You'll see this all the time. Just read it out loud and think what it sounds like, and guess which letter best fits in place of the apostrophe.

That's it!

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