We live at a time in which not only is language changing around us, but we can look back over the centuries of linguistic change that have informed the present. Despite all our recent achievements, to find the paragons of the written word we must look to the past. Unfortunately, what we find there can often be confusing and impenetrable, in much the same way that the extra-terrestrial invaders of the future will be confounded by the linguistic quirks which are second nature to us.
Not only do we look to the past to draw from the greats, however, but also to apply those linguistic artefacts as framing devices and narrative elements. When characters uncover or quote ancient texts, writers often employ archaic language; a phrase peppered with antiquated words could gain a great deal of gravitas; a fictional character might speak in such a way or use a dead language naturally to show great age. Alas, this is so often executed poorly that TVTropes has, predictably, a trope (after which this article is named) to describe what a mess most writers make of their attempts.
The first mistake made by many writers is to assume that there is “Old” English and there is “Modern” English. The second mistake such writers make is also to assume that the difference is largely in the arbitrary sprinkling of thee and thou and forsooth. In fact, what most people would say is “Old English” – the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible (KJV) – is actually Early Modern English.
Old English, which predates even Chaucer (d. 25/10/1400) by centuries, is so old that it is almost entirely incomprehensible to anyone who has not studied the language.
Fæder ūre þū þe eart on heofonum,
Sī þīn nama ġehālgod.
Tōbecume þīn rīċe,
ġewurþe þīn willa, on eorðan swā swā on heofonum.
Early Modern English (EME), by contrast, is still fairly accessible. Here is, doubtless, a more familiar translation of the text above.
Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name;
Thy kingdom come;
Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.
Because of its literary and spiritual pedigree, Early Modern English lends an immense semiotic weight when properly applied, but only when properly applied. It is not easy to do this, especially because most writers are not linguists and therefore lack much of the specialist knowledge required to create even a facsimile of EME. Worse, many assume that this is how people from Ye Olden Time ™ must have spoken, whether they lived in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Victoria.
Unhelpfully, reproducing EME is tricky, not only because it is dissimilar enough from our own form of English to require learning new rules, but because those rules are frequently broken. Not only that, but it is tiring and confusing to construct for most people, which means that many attempts to evoke EME-related symbols are half-hearted or abortive, such as in the lopsided application given to the Great Deku Tree in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. EME obviously predates later attempts to standardize spelling and grammar, and adults learn language primarily by analysis. However, for the writer who wants to incorporate a touch of the archaic and antiquated, here is some advice.
Do Your Homework
Learning language through immersion is the most effective tool. On the off chance that you cannot find any 15th Century playwrights with whom to converse, you will need to find another form of immersion. This means, if you want to replicate the speech of a particular period, you will have to study that period or find someone else who has to help you. The art of that period is a good place to start. If your writing encompasses the Early or Mid-Twentieth Century, listen to old radio broadcasts, find newspaper articles, and read the authors active in that period. Even those who might not want to take their research further could be surprised how familiar, and yet different, the vocabulary and patterns of speech have become even in a short space of time.
Thanks to my grandparents who kept old tapes, I grew up listening to episodes of Round the Horne, whose occasionally quaint turns of phrase (not always deliberate) and outdated slang were charming, if sometimes confusing. The series is perhaps most infamous for its use of Polari, a form of slang adopted by homosexuals, for comic effect, which in turn probably contributed to Polari’s demise, as the secret code for illegal and scandalous activity was made public. Many books of the same period, as well as the late 19th Century are still quite easy to read: Lewis and Tolkein are familiar to most, although their English is so similar to ours that it can be hard to note the differences. The works of GK Chesterton are excellent, not only for their own merits, but as an example of English which is similar to ours but still recognizably different. Likewise, the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, although gleefully scorned by snobs and killjoys, convey not only their age’s language of communication, but also the more oblique language of satire. For example, The Mikado, perhaps their greatest collaboration, pretends to be a comedy about Japan but, in fact, is a satire of Victorian society’s attitudes to justice, love, and death.
I have always found music to be an excellent aide-mémoire and so for those who find Shakespeare uninteresting or who struggle to immerse themselves in the KJV, I recommend music, especially Tudor music, but also later Anglican music which uses the traditional texts. Quotations from traditional scripture and liturgy are framed in some of the most beautiful prose (albeit sometimes rather dubious translations) that have ever graced the English language, and which a writer can use for research as much as pleasure. A few examples are given at the end of this article with a variety of styles, contexts and composers: consider coming back later and listening to them with the rules of EME in mind. You can also find a few in one of my earlier posts. First, however, it is time to delve into some of the mechanics of EME.
Ever Mind the Why and Wherefore
When EME or other archaisms are rendered with a standardized spelling, the reader might be lulled into a false sense of security: most words will be familiar and many that are not will look like they have an obvious meaning. Take for example Juliet’s famous, ‘O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?’. She is not, as popular culture constantly forgets, wondering where Romeo is, but pondering his identity, his kinship with the rival house Montague. Wherefore means why, not where. Similarly, there is a traditional Anglican prayer that begins, ‘Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings, with thy most gracious favour’. A modern listener might expect to hear at some point from what it is that God is supposed to be preventing us. However, prevent here means go before, not stop. Yet more confusingly, as the Anglican inheritance shows, wherefore can also be used to mean therefore.
Becoming acquainted with which words are used and what they mean is as important as avoiding modern terms. ‘Prevent us, O Lord, in all our impactful webinars’ might work as a comic reference to a rather niche audience, but it will not create an aura of mystical reverence or formality, which is also discussed in an aforementioned earlier post. The only way to avoid making either of these mistakes is to pay careful attention and, perhaps, ask an expert or at the least a well-informed amateur to check for you.
Finally (at least in terms of the lexicon) the writer might be tempted to use some archaic spellings when trying to recreate archaic language. I, personally, am all in favour of eccentric spelling, but many editors and readers are not. I recommend using them sparingly and consistently. For example, I like to use ligatures (encyclopædia, œcology) and I have a friend who prefers the -xion suffix to the -tion suffix in words like connexion and inflexion. Attempting to recreate the 16th Century by spelling the same word in different ways in the same manuscript is usually inadvisable (although, as with most bad ideas, it has been done well for comic effect).
As a side note, some of our stereotypes about EME come from orthographic misunderstandings. Indeed, ‘ye olde pubbe’ and ‘ye olde butcherede englishe’ are such examples: the ye is not a ye at all, but a the. German printing presses did not have a thorn (þ) because þ was not used in the German alphabet. So, when printing in English, they replaced the þ in words like þe (the) with y. Years later, with the disappearance of þ, a quirk of the printing industry has become a hallmark of pubs pretending to be older than they really are and a Homestar Runner joke that went on for far longer than anyone could have predicted. In your own writing, I recommend avoiding any attempt to recreate authentic spelling in its fullness, but sprinkling a few here and there could work. It did for Pullman’s His Dark Materials, for example. Similarly, the Warhammer 40,000 universe uses Greco-Latin phrases and nouns as a way of explaining to the audience how the fictional language High Gothic sounds to the speakers of Low Gothic i.e. highly formal, even religious, and technical.
Thee, thyself and thy
The second feature, and probably the first that most people will remember or attempt when embarking upon an EME-inspired venture is to put these strange words all over the place. Simply put, EME has a system of pronouns different from our own. Thou, thee, and thy are the subject, object, and possessive forms of the singular second person used in EME. Thine is a variant of thy which tends to appear either at the end of a clause or before a word which begins with a vowel or the letter h (although, as anyone can see, this rule is frequently broken in authentic texts). It is used very closely to how we might use mine instead of my or yours instead of your.
Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. (Hebrews 1:5)
You are my son; I have begotten you today.
Have mercy on me, O Lord, after thy great goodness (Psalm 51:1)
Have mercy on me, oh Lord, according to your great goodness.
Thine, O Lord, is the greatness and the power. (1 Chronicles 29:11)
Yours, oh Lord, is the majesty and power.
You and ye, the second person plural, mean almost the same thing and are used largely interchangeably, with a preference for using you after prepositions or when the second person is the object.
Verily, verily, I say unto you. (John 5:24)
Truly, truly I say to you.
If ye love me, keep my commandments. (John 14:15)
If you love me, keep my commandments.
In EME, pronouns are also used as part of the imperative.
Take thou authority to preach the word of God (the Bishop’s instruction, 1662 Ordinal).
Take authority to preach the word of God.
Seek ye first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33)
Seek first the kingdom of God.
With these essentials, most other pronouns (like thyself) become self-explanatory.
English hath no ending like a verb scorned
The final feature is the change which happen at the end of verbs. Like many languages, English verbs are inflected. That is, they change according to the work they are doing in a sentence. The verb to be can appear as am, are, is, was, and were for example. Most verbs in English do not inflect so much. These regular verbs include the ubiquitous live, love, and laugh.
In EME, verbal inflection is much more involved. In addition to the regular verbs, to be and to have follow their own rules, and there are some unusual irregular patterns, but as a basis, let us take live.
Getting the -est and -eth termination the right way around is the difference between an approximation of EME and something which could pass for the real thing. Of course, that only works for regular verbs, and modal verbs confuse matters even further.
The two main irregular verbs that the writer will need are to be and to have. First, let us conjugate to be.
These should be quite familiar. Other tenses can be trickier and in some texts, especially before Shakespeare, there can be other forms of these verbs as well. For example, thou wert (you were) or thou beest (you are). Now for to have.
Again, these should be quite straightforward and sufficiently similar that a writer could begin to make use of them to construct basic sentences. Modal verbs generally only take alternative forms in the second person singular form, and the verb which follows takes the bare infinitive, as in contemporary English.
Thou shouldest/shouldst not covet thy neighbour’s house.
Thou canst leave thine hat on.
These are the basics with which to build simple sentences. Consider practising by turning well-known phrases into EME grammatically, and then prune away modern words and turns of phrase. With increased familiarity, one might feel moved to alter word-order or insert entirely new words, until the meaning of the original subsists in a new linguistic construct. Here are some examples. Can you identify them all?
Stay ye awhile and listen.
War. War changeth never.
Thou shalt be baked and then there wilt be cake.
Have I told thee the meaning of madness?
Thou gavest them that which from them was stolen.
Of course, this is not a comprehensive guide to EME, and there are many more tips, such as how to use whom properly, which will help not only with reconstructing this beautiful, archaic English, but also with writing generally. I will touch on those at a later time. Until then, enjoy thou these, the fruits of my deliberations, and fall neither into laziness, nor do as the foolish man doth, but take all these things to thy remembrance, and flourish thou, even as the leaf upon the tree flourisheth.
Pastime with Good Company – King Henry VIII
Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone – John Farmer
Come again, sweet love doth now invite – John Dowland
Verily, verily I say unto you – Thomas Tallis
Like as the Hart – Herbert Howells, text from Psalm 42
O, sing joyfully – Adrian Batten, text from Psalm 81
Psalm 150 – Charles Villiers Stanford (Anglican Chant)
What power art thou? (Song of the Cold Genius) from King Arthur – Henry Purcell
What power art thou? – Purcell, interpreted by experimental musician Klaus Nomi
Some slightly longer pieces for the enthusiast:
Magnificat from the Short Service – Orlando Gibbons (text Luke 1:46 – 55)
Ascribe unto the Lord – Samuel Sebastian Wesley
Behold, I tell you a mystery & The trumpet shall sound from Messiah – George Frederick Handel