dan.tobias.name | Frivolity | Archaic Grammar

Archaic English Grammar

Some people like to speak or write in archaic English because they think it's cute to say something like "I thinketh thou stinketh!" Methinks they should at least try to get the archaic grammar correct. (Can you spot all the errors in the above "archaic" sentence?) This page is to help you get the grammar right when you decide to get medieval with your language.

The question, of course, then comes up of just which era of archaic English you should be emulating. Languages are in a state of constant change. The Old English of AD 800 looks completely foreign to modern English speakers, and our descendants in the year 3200 probably will think the same of the English we use now. Usually what people mean by "archaic English" is the variety that was spoken around AD 1500, when the language was transitioning from "Middle English" to "Modern English", so that's what I use here. If you go much earlier than that, you'll really confuse people with things like "heo" in place of "she", "hit" in place of "it", and "hem" in place of "them".

Pronouns and their Verb Conjugations

These are the things people use most often to "affect" an archaic feel to their language. Here are the correct usages:

1 My/mine and thy/thine were used similarly to a/an; "my" and "thy" preceded a word beginning with a consonant sound, while "mine" and "thine" preceded a word beginning with a vowel sound.

2 Note that "ye" is the nominative and "you" is the accusative, which is counterintuitive given that thou/thee go the opposite way. When town criers yelled "Hear Ye!", the "ye" in question is the subject, not the object, of the hearing; the closest modern equivalent would be "Y'all hear" (for southerners), or "Youse guys hear" or "yunz hear" (for northerners, varying by city or region). (Somebody has e-mailed me to point out that, in fact, the case of "Ye" in use here is the vocative... and somebody else replied that it's actually the implied subject of an imperative.) Also note that using "ye" in place of "the", as in "Ye olde candye shoppe", is incorrect; this derives from a mistaken interpretation of an archaic spelling of "the" using a former runic letter later replaced by "th"; this letter kind of resembled a lowercase "y", and when printing was invented, early printers, lacking the already-obsolete letter in their movable type, sometimes used a "y" for it when transcribing old documents.

'Familiar' and 'Formal' Forms of Address

To further complicate the use of pronouns, English in the period in question made a distinction in second-person pronouns depending on whether you were addressing somebody in a familiar or formal mode. This concept is familiar to students of other languages that have such forms of address, like the distinction between tu and usted in Spanish. Actually, the usage of vous in French best parallels the forms of address in medieval English; it's a second-person plural pronoun that's also used in the singular when addressing somebody in a formal way.

The singular pronouns thou and thee were considered "familiar", meaning that they were appropriate for use among close friends and family. When addressing somebody who was not so close, however, the use of thou or thee implied that you regarded them as being of lower social class than you were, and hence was definitely inappropriate when addressing your social superiors. People could be punished for contempt of court for addressing a judge in this manner, for instance. To address somebody outside the circle of familiarity in a respectful way, especially when they were of higher social class or in a position of power, ye and you were used, even though the addressee was singular rather than plural.

Eventually, with the rise of more egalitarian philosophies in contrast to the rigid hierarchies of feudalism, having two different forms of address was regarded as excess baggage, and you reached its modern usage with no distinction of familiar or formal, singular or plural, or nominative or accusative. The distinction of the plural "you" was then reinvented in some dialects as "y'all", "youse guys", "yunz", etc.

Past Tenses

The "-ed" suffix was used then as now to mark the past tense in regular "weak" verbs. Some verbs that are now regular, however, were still in the irregular "strong" classes, forming past tenses by vowel alteration in the "sing / sang / sung" or "steal / stole" mode. (I don't have a list handy of which verbs made this change; I may add it later.) Originally, the "-ed" suffix was pronounced as a separate syllable, but by Shakespeare's day it was commonly shortened to the modern form, and often spelled like "deceiv'd" to indicate this (and this pronunciation was denounced by linguistic purists of the day as sloppy).

Silent 'e'

Spelling hadn't quite settled down to the modern standardized style, so instead of a single bizarre, illogical set of spellings as we have now, there was a whole profusion of different bizarre, illogical spellings. One common variation was the insertion and removal of the letter 'e' at the end of words. A little earlier in the history of the language, the final 'e' was actually pronounced, and poets sometimes added or dropped it to get the meter of a verse to scan correctly. Later, it went silent, and writers used their own aesthetic sensibilities to decide when to include or exclude it, until the dictionary writers finally and arbitrarily standardized the spellings as they are now. People going for an archaic feel sometimes add "e" at the end of words that don't presently have it, and there really doesn't seem to be any "right" or "wrong" to it.


External links

This page was first created 09 Apr 2001, and was last modified 06 Aug 2012.
Copyright © 1995-2012 by Daniel R. Tobias. All rights reserved.