INTRODUCTION.ELIZABETHAN English, on a superficial view, appears to present this great point of difference from the English of modern times, that in the former any irregularities whatever, whether in the formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences, are allowable. In the first place, almost any part of speech can be used as any other part of speech. An adverb can be used as a verb,
; as a noun,
“They askance their eyes
; or as an adjective,
“the backward and abysm of time
. Any noun, adjective, or neuter verb can be used as an active verb. You can happy your friend, malice or foot your enemy, or fall an axe on his neck. An adjective can be used as an adverb; and you can speak and act easy, free, excellent: or as a noun, and you can talk of fair instead of beauty, and a pale instead of a paleness. Even the pronouns are not exempt from these metamorphoses. A he is used for a man, and a lady is described by a gentleman as the fairest she he has yet beheld. Spenser asks us to
“a seldom pleasure
And Heywood, after dividing human diners into three classes thus-- Some with small fare they be not pleased,
“Come down and learne the little what
That Thomalin can sayne.
”Calend. Jul. v. 31 (Nares).
Some with much fare they be diseased,
Some with mean fare be scant appeased,
adds with truly Elizabethan freedom-- But of all somes none is displeased
To be welcome.
1 In the second place, every variety of apparent grammatical inaccuracy meets us. He for him, him for he; spoke and took, for spoken and taken; plural nominatives with singular verbs; relatives omitted where they are now considered necessary; unnecessary antecedents inserted; shall for will, should for would, would for wish; to omitted after "I ought," inserted after "I durst;" double negatives; double comparatives ("more better," &c.) and superlatives; such followed by which, that by as, as used for as if; that for so that; and lastly, some verbs apparently with two nominatives, and others without any nominative at all. To this long list of irregularities it may be added that many words, and particularly prepositions and the infinitives of verbs, are used in a different sense from the modern. Thus--
does not mean I am too savage to fright you.
“To fright you thus methinks I am too savage,
(170) does not mean from Edward, but by Edward; and when Shakespeare says that “the rich” will not every hour survey his treasure, “for blunting the fine point of seldom pleasure,” he does not mean for the sake of, but for fear of blunting pleasure. On a more careful examination, however, these apparently disorderly and inexplicable anomalies will arrange themselves under certain heads. It must be remembered that the Elizabethan was a transitional period in the history of the English language. On the one hand, there was the influx of new discoveries and new thoughts requiring as their equivalent the coinage of new words (especially words expressive of abstract ideas); on the other hand, the revival of classical studies and the popularity of translations from Latin and Greek authors suggested Latin and Greek words (but principally Latin) as the readiest and most malleable metal, or rather as so many ready-made coins requiring only a slight national stamp to prepare them for the proposed augmentation of the currency of the language. Moreover, the long and rounded periods of the ancients commended themselves to the ear of the Elizabethan authors. In the attempt to conform English to the Latin frame, the constructive power of the former language was severely strained. The necessity of avoiding ambiguity and the difficulty of connecting the end of a long sentence with the beginning, gave rise to some irregularities, to the redundant pronoun (242), the redundant ‘that’ (285), and the irregular ‘to’ (416). But, for the most part, the influence of the classical languages was confined to single words, and to the rhythm of the sentence. The syntax was mostly English both in its origin and its development, and several constructions that are now called anomalous (such as the double negative  and the double comparative ) have, and had from the earliest period, an independent existence in English, and are merely the natural results of a spirit which preferred clearness and vigour of expression to logical symmetry. Many of the anomalies above mentioned may be traced back to some peculiarities of Early English, modified by the transitional Elizabethan period. Above all, it must be remembered that Early English was far richer than Elizabethan English in inflections. As far as English inflections are concerned the Elizabethan period was destructive rather than constructive. Naturally, therefore, while inflections were being discarded, all sorts of tentative experiments were made: some inflections were discarded that we have restored, others retained that we have discarded. Again, sometimes where inflections were retained the sense of their meaning and power had been lost, and at other times the memory of inflections that were no longer visibly expressed in writing still influenced the manner of expression. Thus Ben Jonson writes:-- “The persons plural keep the termination of the first person singular. In former times, till about the reign of King Henry VIII. they were wont to be formed by adding en thus:--Loven, sayen, complainen. But now (whatsoever is the cause) it is quite grown out of use, and that other so generally prevailed that I dare not presume to set this on foot again.” He appears to be aware of the Midland plural in en (332) which is found only very rarely in Spenser and in Pericles of Tyre, but not of the Northern plural in es (333), which is very frequently found in Shakespeare, and which presents the apparent anomaly of a plural noun combined with a singular verb. And the same author does not seem to be aware of the existence of the subjunctive mood in English. He ignores it in his Etymology of a Verb, and, in the chapter on Syntax of a Verb with a Noun, writes as follows:-- “Nouns signifying a multitude, though they be of the singular number, require a verb plural: 'And wise men rehearsen in sentence,
“Received of the most pious Edward
Where folk be drunken there is no resistance.' LYDGATE, lib. ii.” And he continues thus:--“This exception is in other nouns also very common, especially when the verb is joined to an adverb or conjunction: It is preposterous to execute a man before he have been condemned.” It would appear hence that the dramatist was ignorant of the force of the inflection of the subjunctive, though he frequently uses it. Among the results of inflectional changes we may set down the following anomalies:--
- Inflections discarded but their power
- spoke (343) for spoken, rid for ridden. 2
- You ought not walk for You ought not walken (the old infinitive).
- The new infinitive (357) to walk used in its new meaning and also sometimes retaining its old gerundive signification. 3
- To glad (act.), to mad (act.), &c. (290) for to gladden, madden, &c.
- The adverbial e (1) being discarded, an adjective appears to be used as an adverb: “He raged more fierce,” &c.
- Other is used for other(e), pl. other men, &c.
- The ellipsis of the pronoun (399) as a nominative may also be in part thus explained.
- Inflections retained with their old
- The subjunctive inflection frequently used to express a condition--“Go not my horse,” for If my horse go not. Hence
- as with the subj. appears to be used for as if, and for and if, but (in the sense of except) for except if, &c.
- The plural in en; very rarely.
- The plural in es or s; far more commonly.
- His used as the old genitive of he for of him. Me, him, &c. used to represent other cases beside the objective and the modern dative: “I am appointed him to murder you.”
- Inflections retained but their power
diminished or lost.
- Thus he for him, him for he; I for me, me for I, &c.
- In the same way the s which was the sign of the possessive case had so far lost its meaning that, though frequently retained, it was sometimes replaced (in mistake) by his and her.
- Other anomalies may be explained by reference
to the derivations of words and the idioms of Early
English. Hence can be explained
- so followed by as;
- such followed by which (found in E. E. sometimes in the form whuch or wuch);
- that followed by as;
- who followed by he;
- the which put for which;
- shall for will, should for would, and would for wish.
- Clearness was preferred to grammatical correctness, and
- brevity both to correctness and clearness.
- “The prince that feeds great natures they will sway him.” B. J. Sejanus.
- As instances of brevity:--
“It cost more to get than to lose in a day.” B. J. Poetaster.
“Be guilty of my death since of my crime.
- The character of Elizabethan English is impressed upon its pronunciation, as well as upon its idioms and words. As a rule their pronunciation seems to have been more rapid than ours. Probably the greater influence of spoken as compared with written English, sanctioned many contractions which would now be judged intolerable if for the first time introduced. (See 461.) This, however, does not explain the singular variation of accent upon the same words in the same author. Why should "exile," "aspect," "confessor," and many other words, be accented now on the first, now on the second syllable? The answer is, that during the unsettled Elizabethan period the foreign influence was contending with varying success against the native rules of English pronunciation. The English rule, as given by Ben Jonson, is definite enough. "In dissyllabic simple nouns" (by which it is to be supposed he means un-compounded), "the accent is on the first, as 'bélief,' 'hónour,' &c." But he goes on to say, that "all verbs coming from the Latin, either of the supine or otherwise, hold the accent as it is found in the first person present of those Latin verbs." Hence a continual strife over every noun derived from Latin participles: the English language claiming the new comer as her naturalized subject, bound by English laws; the Latin, on the other hand, asserting a partial jurisdiction over her emigrants. Hence accéss and áccess, precépt and précept, contráct (noun) and cóntract, instínct and ínstinct, relápse and rélapse. The same battle raged over other Latin words not derived from participles: commérce and cómmerce, obdúrate and óbdurate, sepúlchre and sépulchre, contráry and cóntrary, authórize and aúthorize, perséver and persevére, cónfessor and conféssor. The battle terminated in a thoroughly English manner. An arbitrary compromise has been effected between the combatants. Respéct, relápse, succéss, succéssor, were ceded to the Latin: áspect, cóllapse, 4 áccess, sépulchre, were appropriated by the English. But while the contest was pending, and prisoners being taken and retaken on either side, we must not be surprised at finding the same word ranged now under native, now under foreign colours.