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Early Modern English adjectives and adverbs

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically adverbs and adjectives – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.
In this talk, part of our series on early modern English grammar, painting in Shakespeare’s linguistic backdrop, we focus on adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives are words that often qualify nouns. And adverbs are words that often qualify verbs. In fact, as in other talks, I’m not going to tell you everything there is to know about these but, instead, concentrate on what will be most striking and relevant, when you study Shakespeare. I’m going to look at just one issue, comparatives and superlatives. What’s that all about? Let’s take the example of the adjective, sweet. If we want to say that something is sweeter than something else, that’s the word we would use, sweeter. We add er for the comparative.
And if it’s the sweetest thing of all, we add est, sweetest, for the superlative. Note that there is an alternative way of expressing more or less the same thing. You could say more sweet for the comparative and most sweet for the superlative. But this would be exceedingly unusual. Let’s check out an adverb, the adverb freely. To produce the comparative form, we would normally use more freely and not freelier. It is similar with the superlative. We would use most freely rather than freeliest. We can generalise about what is happening today. If the word has one syllable, like sweet, it is more likely to take the inflexions er or est.
If it has more than two syllables, then it is more likely to use the addition of the words more or most. And if it has two syllables like freely, there are a mixture of possibilities depending on the word. In Shakespeare’s time there was much variation. It is easy to find cases like this. “His ascension is more sweet than our blessed fields.” “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence.” Of course, these are very easy to understand. But for the modern reader, they are slightly odd to the ear. We need to remember that this would not have been the case in Shakespeare’s time.
Before leaving adjectives and adverbs, we should remember the business of double comparatives and double superlatives, which is essentially when you combine both methods in one, resulting in something like more sweeter or most sweetest. It is not difficult to find cases like this in Shakespeare. For example, “Up princes, and with spirit of honour edged, more sharper than your swords, hie to the field.” “This was the most unkindest cut of all.” “He bears himself more proudlier, even to my person.” “That I love thee best, oh most best, believe it.” The key thing to remember about such cases is that whilst they are now outlawed in written language, they were fine in Shakespeare’s time.
That this is so is demonstrated by the fact that high status characters use them. The quotations you see are spoken by a French king, Marc Anthony, one of the three rulers of ancient Rome, a Ophideas, leader of the volskian army, and Prince Hamlet. One does find them in the mouths of low status characters, such as Touchstone, in As You Like It. But they seem to be using them as prestigious forms, to demonstrate pretensions of high status.
In this talk, we have looked at adjectives and adverbs, specifically comparatives and superlatives, and also double comparatives and superlatives. Again, the key point, however, is not to remember all this detail but to get a sense of the variation and also some of the motivations for using one thing, as opposed to another.

Adjectives are words that often qualify nouns (e.g. “quick” as in “a quick car”), and adverbs are words that often qualify verbs (e.g. “quickly” as in “he drove quickly”). We discuss them here to wrap up our previous discussion of nouns, and our more recent discussion of verbs.

As always, we will concentrate on what is striking and relevant from the perspective of today’s reader. This means a focus on just one issue: comparatives and superlatives. Comparatives compare the degree of one thing with the degree of another, whilst superlatives are “super”, that is, at the top of the scale.

Today, at least theoretically, there are two ways of doing this. Regarding comparison, we might say “a quicker car” or “a more quick car” for the adjective , or “he drove quicklier than before” or “he drove more quickly than before” for the adverb. Note that the choice is between adding -er or the word “more”. Similar choices are available for the superlative, but this time between the ending -est and the word “most”. However, in practice, these choices do not sound equally good (e.g. “quicklier” doesn’t sound very good today!).

In Shakespeare’s time, there was much more variation amongst these choices. And what we must absolutely remember is that something that sounds odd or even uneducated today might not have sounded that way then.

What do you make of double forms like “the most unkindest cut of all” or “more sharper than your swords”? Add your thoughts to the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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