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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.
This talk is the final one in our series on early modern English grammar, painting in Shakespeare’s linguistic backdrop. This time we focus on one specific feature of simple sentences. A feature chosen because it is both common in Shakespeare’s time and different from ours. In this talk, we will look at subject-verb inversion or the verb-second constraint that might sound horribly technical, but when you see the examples you will realise it is fairly straightforward. Let’s take three examples from Shakespeare. “Yonder comes Paris.” “So prosper I, as I swear perfect love.” “Thus do they Sir– they take the flow of the Nile.” Now, I’ll highlight the key features. In blue you see the verb– comes, prosper, do.
In green, you see the subject– Paris, I, they– of the sentence. Now these are not in the usual order that we would expect today. We would expect “Yonder Paris comes.” “So I prosper.” And, “thus they do Sir.” What is going on here? That default order for today, subject, verb, object, was less established. Alternative, minor patterns had a stronger foothold than they do today. The pattern we see here involves inverting, or swapping the position, of the verb and the subject. Another way of looking at it is that the verb is placed in second position, typically after an adverb or adverbial such as– therefore, thus, here, so, and yet. You can see this very clearly in the examples.
Yonder, so, and thus are adverbs at the beginning of the sentences. And then immediately we get the verbs in blue and then the subject. This pattern is the old Germanic pattern. It was more frequent in old English and, in fact, it still can be seen today in modern German. Why is Shakespeare using it here? Well of course, there’s our old friend the metre. Aside from that, one possibility is that sometimes it was used to place focus on the fronted element, the word that has been moved earlier in the sentence. In “Yonder comes Paris,” there might be a touch more emphasis on the fact that he is actually coming rather than that it is Paris.
This is the last talk on Shakespeare’s linguistic background. So I would like to make some general points. The aim of these talks has not been to turn you into a linguist, but to sensitise you to the possibilities the options available to Shakespeare and also to what Shakespeare might do with those options. Whether it be, for example, lending a hand to characterization, the metre of the line, adding some extra emphasis, creating a high style, or an archaic style. Shakespeare’s was a world of variants and variation. He had a lot of choice. Discovering what was available is certainly one area where corpus methods can help, as we will show you later in this course.
I have been telling you about the resources that were available to Shakespeare and were available to all writers at the time. We think that saying “Yonder comes Paris” sounds more Shakespearean than “Yonder Paris comes.” And to some extent, that is true. But Shakespeare was part and parcel of his context, his linguistic context, his literary context, and his sociocultural context. Other writers were part of this too and other writers did these things too. As much as anything else I hope I have warned you of the dangers of misinterpretation through importing today’s assumptions. It is a mistake, for example, to interpret multiple negation in Shakespeare as non-standard, as rule breaking. This is simply because there wasn’t yet a well-established rule outlawing it.
Fully standardised, written English did not exist. Of course, there are some preferences in Shakespeare that we can detect. For example, some researchers have noted that, at least for some language features, if there is an older, receding or recessive variant and a newer one, then generally Shakespeare tended towards the older, recessive one.
However, it’s not just about what Shakespeare generally did. What specifically was Shakespeare doing with the resources he had available? How he was creating particular characters, particular moments of tension, particular meanings, and so on. And to answer that, the starting point has to be understanding the resources themselves.

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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