Thursday, May 21, 2009

KJV: Elizabethan English is a Different Language

John McWhorter over at "The New Republic" has this to say on topic of whether the literature of Shakespeare is able to connect with us today, and I think it also speaks strongly to the King James Only issue:

"The problem is whether Shakespeare's English is the language we speak at all. English of the late 1500s presents us with a tricky question: At what point do we concede that substantial comprehension across the centuries has become too much of a challenge to expect of anyone but specialists?

"There is indeed just such a gap. Shakespeare lovers of all kinds miss much more of Shakespeare's basic meanings than they tend to suspect. Way back in 1898, Mark H. Liddell made this point in the Atlantic, taking as an example Polonius' farewell to Laertes in Hamlet. The speech is full of hidden deceptions, often leaving little more understanding of what Shakespeare said than we would of a Jamaican saying goodbye to his son in patois.

"'And these few precepts in thy memory / Look thou character'--we might take this as 'And as for these few precepts in thy memory, look, you rascal you!' Actually, look used to be an interjection roughly equivalent to 'see that you do it well.' Those of us who have a certain feel for archaic language might guess that character means something like 'to evaluate,' but this isn't even close--to Shakespeare, character here meant 'to write'! Granted, good acting might convey that look is an interjection, but no matter how charismatic and fine-tuned the acting, thou character is beyond comprehension to any but the occasional philologist in the audience.

"Then, 'Give thy thoughts no tongue, / Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.' First of all, thought to Shakespeare meant 'plan,' not just mental activity. Thus 'Give thy thoughts no tongue' meant 'Don't show your hand,' not just 'button up.' 'Nor any unproportion'd thought his act' - whose act? Who does the his refer to? To a modern listener this is the sort of opaque little splotch we must just let by, which in combination with the thousands of others over three hours leaves us yearning for a drink or a pillow. Actually, his could refer to things as well as men in earlier English. And act meant 'execution': the phrase meant 'Do not act on your intentions until they are well proportioned, i.e. completely thought out,' not just 'Don't be a silly-billy.'

"At the end, the famous 'Neither a borrower or a lender be, / 'For loan oft loses both itself and friend, / And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.' Did Shakespeare suppose that the reason one shouldn't borrow is because it interferes with the raising of livestock? Actually, husbandry meant 'thrift' at the time. It will say that in the footnotes of a Hamlet book; but at the theatre, you don't have that with you.

"All Shakespeare plays are shot through with this kind of thing. The foremost writer in the English language is little more than a symbol in the actual thinking lives of most of us for the simple reason that we cannot understand what the man is saying. Listen to even ordinary Russians quoting Pushkin to get a sense of how far from our Bard we really are."

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