Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I don’t like Shakespeare because he doesn’t write in English?

William Shakespeare was writing in “the late 1500s” – closer in time to the age of Beowulf than to us. Beowulf is written “in Old English [which] is a different language to us.” It may be a version of English but the English of Beowulf is not our language. Language change has continued apace, slowed by literacy, it’s likely, but refusing to remain static or “pure”. Says linguist John McWhorter, “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? … The common feeling that Shakespeare is simply a matter of ‘adjustment’ is understandable – so much closer to us in time than Beowulf, with so many of the same words and sentence structures, much of the foreignness of the language is subtle but profound, rather like the differences between standard English and Jamaican patois.”

McWhorter gives examples: wherefore used to mean why, thus Juliet’s famous “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” meant “Why are you Romeo?”, not “Where are you, Romeo?” Or, rather, “Why did I have to fall in love with one of my family’s sworn enemies, dammit! Why couldn’t it have been some nice Jew, say, or a dyke from Zanzibar?” Context does help with the wherefore, but line by line word after word appears that just isn’t used anymore the way Shakespeare had it. We are required to translate constantly, but often don’t know it because the word Shakespeare uses is one still in use – only now we use that word to mean something a bit different. Wit, for instance, didn’t mean humorousness in Shakie’s day, it meant smarts – knowledge or intelligence.

“Yes, some might say, but the ‘knowledge’ meaning of wit isn’t completely lost to us today. Not only does it survive in the frozen expression to wit, but also in the old expression mother wit, which refers to innate common sense … Even dictionaries still include the ‘knowledge’ meaning. But today, this is clearly a peripheral meaning …”

McWhorter gives a bunch of examples. I’m not going to copy them out. But I get his point. Maybe it’s not that Shakespeare isn’t the great writer that everybody says. Maybe it’s not that he’s howlingly overrated. Maybe it’s that I’ve been led to believe he’s writing in English – and he just ain’t. And maybe that’s what messes with me. I don’t get him cuz I need a translation.

source: Word on the Street: debunking the myth of a ‘pure’ standard English by John McWhorter


David Lee Ingersoll said...

So maybe I'd enjoy Shakespeare's plays more if they were subtitled? I enjoy plenty of foreign films. I'll have to see if any of the library's filmed Shakespeares have English subtitles.

Unknown said...

I notice that you commented in a later post on my translation of Macbeth. I began the project after using McWhorter's book in a course I taught at California State University, Long Beach.

When I showed McWhorter my translation of King Lear, he was surprised and thrilled that someone had taken him up on the idea of doing careful, faithful translations. He wrote a nice testimonial that you can read on the book's website.

Kent Richmond

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Hello, Mr Richmond!

Thanks for working up those contemporary translations. I'll probably read another sometime. Yes, even though I say I don't like Shakie.

Meaningless coincidences: my partner's name is Kent, I got the Lear translation via interlibrary loan -- the owning library: Richmond Public.