Shakespeare’s grammar: “He words me”

A neuroscientist describes one of the things that is so remarkable about Shakespeare’s language:  The way he–along with the Elizabethan English of his time–can use words for different parts of speech:

E. A. Abbott (1838-1926) was one of the great Victorian schoolmasters, who wrote, at the age of thirty, A Shakespearian Grammar. He described it as an attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Victorian English so that his students could understand that the difficulty of Shakespeare lay not so much in the individual words, which could always be looked up in a glossary, as in the syntactic shaping of his thought. In Elizabethan grammar, he said, ‘it was common to place words in the order in which they came uppermost in the mind’ – and then fit the syntax around that mental excitement. Elizabethan authors, he continued, never objected to any ellipsis – any grammatical shortcut – ‘provided the deficiency could be easily supplied from the context’.

I told my brain scientists that one small but powerful example of this quick Elizabethan shorthand is what is now called functional shift or word-class conversion – which George Puttenham, writing in 1589, named ‘enallage or the figure of exchange’. It happens when one part of speech is suddenly transformed into another with a different function but hardly any change of form. It sounds dull but in performance is almost electrically exciting in its sudden simple reach for a word. For example: an adjective is made a verb when in The Winter’s Tale heavy thoughts are said to ‘thick my blood’. A pronoun is made into a noun when Olivia in Twelfth Night is called ‘the cruellest she alive’. Prospero turns adverb to noun when he speaks so wonderfully of ‘the dark backward’ of past time; Edgar turns noun to verb when he makes the link with Lear: ‘He childed as I fathered.’ As Abbott says, in Elizabethan English ‘You can “happy” your friend, “malice” or “foot” your enemy, or “fall” axe on his head.’ Richard II is not merely deposed (that’s Latinate paraphrase): he is unkinged.

This mental instrument of fresh linguistic coinage, which Shakespeare used above all, holds in small within itself three great principles. Namely: the creative freedom and fluidity of the language at the time; the economy of energy it offered for suddenly compressed formulations; and the closeness of functional shift to metaphor – that characteristic mental conversion that Shakespeare so loved – in the dynamic shifting of senses.

via Literary Review – Philip Davis on Shakespeare and Neurology.

My favorite example of this is in Antony & Cleopatra (II.ii) when Cleopatra responds says to her handmaidens of  Octavius Caesar’s smooth but deceptive rhetoric:  “He words me, girls, he words me.”

Some of Shakespeare’s language-bending has entered into the language has a whole, to its great enrichment.  For example, he took “lone,” as in “lone wolf,” which simply means “one.”  He added -ly to invent “lonely,” the feeling you get when you are “lone.”

The scientist goes on to do an experiment to try to find out how this works in the brain.  But this is also good literary criticism; that is, noticing what an author is doing.

HT: Joe Carter

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • JonSLC

    I haven’t read this entire article yet, but I’m efforting, since I joy to read articles on linguistics. :)

  • JonSLC

    I haven’t read this entire article yet, but I’m efforting, since I joy to read articles on linguistics. :)

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I think a more fertile ground for this language scientist’s studies might be the text messaging language of teenage girls…

  • http://facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I think a more fertile ground for this language scientist’s studies might be the text messaging language of teenage girls…

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    This guy can neuroscience all he wants, but nouning verbs still angsts a lot of people, at least when done contemporary. … Okay, enough of that.

    I think this is just another example of the old saw in the arts that you have to know the rules (and not just know them, but have them down pat) before you can break them. Shakespeare could transmogrify parts of speech Willy-nilly because he was an expert wordwright. But when your average marketing drone merely wants to brand his product with a unique argot, it leaves us cold. Nothing justifies the neologism. It isn’t earned.

    Again, it’s the same with most art. That guitar solo may sound like pure random gibberish, but it still sounds far better than the random gibberish most of us could churn out if we just started flailing at the strings, because we don’t know the rules, and how and when to break them.

    Still, it doesn’t surprise that such “functional shifts” would be “electrically exciting”. They function on the same principle as comedy: it’s not what you expected, yet it works. That second part is key, by the way. Something that you didn’t expect, but that you also can’t make sense of, is just gibberish. You have to know how much you can twist things. Which means you have to know the rules, and what people are expecting, and what they might accept in its place.

    But I’m not sure that Shakespeare’s time was necessarily all that special in this regard. I just think the main theater for such invention has shifted. We don’t seem to seek clever wordplay in movies or plays these days so much as verisimilitude. We prefer the cleverness be left to the plot, for the most part. Ah, but just look over here in the world of pop music, notably in rap lyrics, and I think you’ll find some remarkably clever wordplay once more. Of course, the same people who laud Shakespeare’s visceral wit are sometimes tempted to regard the same thing in rap lyrics as proof of near-illiteracy. Ah well.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    This guy can neuroscience all he wants, but nouning verbs still angsts a lot of people, at least when done contemporary. … Okay, enough of that.

    I think this is just another example of the old saw in the arts that you have to know the rules (and not just know them, but have them down pat) before you can break them. Shakespeare could transmogrify parts of speech Willy-nilly because he was an expert wordwright. But when your average marketing drone merely wants to brand his product with a unique argot, it leaves us cold. Nothing justifies the neologism. It isn’t earned.

    Again, it’s the same with most art. That guitar solo may sound like pure random gibberish, but it still sounds far better than the random gibberish most of us could churn out if we just started flailing at the strings, because we don’t know the rules, and how and when to break them.

    Still, it doesn’t surprise that such “functional shifts” would be “electrically exciting”. They function on the same principle as comedy: it’s not what you expected, yet it works. That second part is key, by the way. Something that you didn’t expect, but that you also can’t make sense of, is just gibberish. You have to know how much you can twist things. Which means you have to know the rules, and what people are expecting, and what they might accept in its place.

    But I’m not sure that Shakespeare’s time was necessarily all that special in this regard. I just think the main theater for such invention has shifted. We don’t seem to seek clever wordplay in movies or plays these days so much as verisimilitude. We prefer the cleverness be left to the plot, for the most part. Ah, but just look over here in the world of pop music, notably in rap lyrics, and I think you’ll find some remarkably clever wordplay once more. Of course, the same people who laud Shakespeare’s visceral wit are sometimes tempted to regard the same thing in rap lyrics as proof of near-illiteracy. Ah well.

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  • Booklover

    In a musical I’m in, Xanadu, an actress announces “Word,” in response to her sister muses as part of the dialog. The musical pokes fun of the eighties. I don’t remember using “Word” in that way in the 80′s. Was it used as a proclamation of truth, or as an affirmative such as “yes,” which itself defies classification?

  • Booklover

    In a musical I’m in, Xanadu, an actress announces “Word,” in response to her sister muses as part of the dialog. The musical pokes fun of the eighties. I don’t remember using “Word” in that way in the 80′s. Was it used as a proclamation of truth, or as an affirmative such as “yes,” which itself defies classification?

  • fws

    booklover @ 4

    word is used precisely as a affirmation of truth in hip hop culture.

  • fws

    booklover @ 4

    word is used precisely as a affirmation of truth in hip hop culture.

  • Booklover

    Thanks. :-)

  • Booklover

    Thanks. :-)

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