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Early Modern English sentences (part 2)

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain grammar – here specifically, and further to the previous talk, sentences – and how Shakespeare was able to exploit it.

One of the particular reasons why Shakespeare’s language sounds so Shakespearean, from our point of view, is to do with a particular way in which the parts of a sentence could be ordered at that time.

Today we might write “now, I write this text”, but back then “now, write I this text” was a possibility. It was a minor pattern then, but certainly used more commonly than today.

That second construction (“write I”) is called subject-verb inversion, because, obviously, the subject (“I”) and verb (“write”) get inverted compared with where they usually are (especially in today’s English).

The interesting thing here is to think about the meaning possibilities when Shakespeare selected it. Of course, it could help out the metre when moving the words around could achieve a better fit. But it also might help in making some of the information in the sentence more salient. For example, by moving “write” to an earlier than expected position in the sentence “now, write I this text” there may be more emphasis put on the action of actually writing.

Can you think of any other meaning effects that might accompany this subject-version structure? (And, purely out of general interest, did you notice in the video what other language today regularly uses this structure?). Write your thoughts in the comments.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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