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James Harbeck

Wherefore Pleaseth Archaic English?

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

Are these not beautiful English? Doth not such usage of the tongue please thine ears or eyen? And yet, if so they do, wherefore do they?

You’d think if it was such excellent English you’d use it on a daily basis, no? Or at least fully understand what it means. And yet many of those who will recognize “wherefore art thou Romeo” as exalted English don’t know that wherefore means “why,” not “where.” We don’t use exalted literally anymore, and we don’t use yea (pronounced “yay”) as an introductory discourse particle at all, except when making a classical reference. Countless millions who say thou and thee every Sunday think them pronouns of the highest reverence, rather than the familiar forms that they are — reserved in their time for social inferiors and those with whom one is on the most intimate terms. Most modern English speakers don’t even know where (and where not) to use –eth conjugations. The language of King James and Shakespeare does not do as good a job at communicating the sense to us; it is too unfamiliar.

And yet this unfamiliarity is one of the main reasons this kind of English is thought beautiful. We see it only in the most exalted contexts. We know Bible quotations mostly from the King James Bible simply because it had a lock on the non-Catholic English-speaking church for a long time. It’s not nearly as accurate or effective as many modern translations. But, because of this, it is like a stained glass window of words, while more idiomatic and accurate translations are like ordinary photographs. It is what our parents and priests quote and what we learn in school. It has guided our literary traditions.

As have the writings of Shakespeare and his contemporaries and successors. His plots are often quite nasty, his characters impulsive and abusive, his moral lessons frequently questionable, his body counts excessive; most of his stories would not be considered family viewing in modern renditions. There’s a reason Thomas Bowdler made sanitized (“Bowdlerized”) versions. But Shakespeare does tell some good and compelling stories with insights into the human condition. And his writing — nearly all in blank verse — has been set as a prime exemplar of elegant English. We learn it in school. We are taught that this is what truly good English is.

So Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible are essential texts in English literature. But most people have a hard time understanding them, and the King James Bible is not a good translation, especially for modern readers. Want literature? Want to impose on people with a sense of high majesty? Read the King James. Want to understand the Bible and communicate its message? Use a better, modern translation. Does it seem awfully much like daily life to say “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged” rather than “Judge not that ye be not judged”? That’s because it’s supposed to. Did you really think the man was speaking in archaic verse in his own time?

We also learn that poetry is more elevated than prose. The tortuous syntactic braidings necessary to fit metre and rhyme become marks of distinction. We learn that “else the Puck a liar call” is more exalted than “or call me a liar,” even though the same thing uttered in daily conversation would elicit a “Huh?!”

But that’s just the thing. It’s not daily. It’s what some anthropologists and theatre scholars have called extra-daily: it is a language of a special, privileged time and place. It does not bear the tarnish and grime of the quotidian grind.

We have also learned in English that exceptions to rules are better than consistency. Nearly all the spelling and grammar mistakes we get browbeaten out of us in our young years are matters of failing to know exceptions to the rules: “Not goed. Went.” “It’s spelled e-i-g-h-t, not a-t-e, and g-r-e-a-t, not g-r-a-t-e.” And so on. As linguists put it, we privilege the marked — marked meaning exceptional.

Marked with exception, but also marked with the grime of time. These works may not have the dull dust of daily life, but they have the chimney soot of ages past. When the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was being cleaned, the soot and dirt of centuries carefully removed to reveal the brilliant colours put there in the first place by Michelangelo, many people complained bitterly about removing all that “beauty and mystery.”

When it comes to the exalted, people want “beauty and mystery,” which consists of what they have learned is beautiful and mysterious because it’s what was handed down to them from ages past, with all its obscurity, in the most exalted extra-daily contexts. The King James Bible is a standout example of English literature precisely because English literature has learned over the ages to treat it as such, and each new generation is shown it as an example. When we judge it exalted, we are judging it by a standard based on … it.


Previous «Linguistics, Frankly» post: Be on the Ball With the Origins of Phrases.

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2 Comments on “Wherefore Pleaseth Archaic English?”

  • Ambrose


    I came from a linguistic background where a lot of old words have actually survived in colloquial speech. So I somewhat agree with what you’ve said: That we treat language as elevated when it’s no longer colloquial. Some of the words and constructs that we (as in people with my linguistic background) intentionally avoid because they’re “too colloquial” often turn out to be very ancient words and constructs, that are seen as elevated by our neighbours in the north.

    But I really find it disturbing that “many” people don’t know what “wherefore” means, since it has exactly the same structure as “therefore” and you’d expect “many” to be able to see the pattern and instinctively know that “wherefore” must mean “why.” This suggests that we no longer treat words are meaningful bits and pieces stitched together to convey a related meaning, but rather just arbitrary sequences of letters or sounds. What has failed here?

    • Paul Buckingham


      Thanks for your thoughts, Ambrose. I’m interested in learning what linguistic community you grew up in, but if you’d prefer not to share it then I’d understand.

      To address one of your points, specifically about whether there’s been a failure in language comprehension: Perhaps it’s not so much a matter of anything having failed and is instead more about different people having different priorities in life. I agree that, with some thought, a person could have a stab at working out what wherefore means from their understanding of the word therefore. But their success will depend on the amount of time they’ve spent thinking about words generally, and many people, reasonably enough, choose to spend their time in other ways. While language is a wonderful thing to ponder, many other topics occupy people’s thoughts: world events, charitable work, nature, and plenty more.

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