Understanding Shakespeare’s Language: the ‘-eths’ and ‘-ests’

Photo by wordynerdbird

One of the things that people find challenging when thinking about Shakespeare’s language – the English of Elizabethan England – is the ‘-eths’ and ‘-ests’ and which words they go on.

In actuality, it’s remarkably straightforward: it’s only the present tense verbs one needs to worry about.

Where we add an –s to verbs, such as lives, builds, makes and believes, they added –eth.

Therefore:
Liveth = lives
Builders = builds
Believeth = believes

The most common verb is doth, which means does:
The language doth confuse, yet she seeketh to understand, for understanding bringeth joy.

Similarly, dost means do.
Dost thou follow? Surely, thou dost understand!

He does = he doth.
You do = thou dost.

If you switch the sentence around, you would just add the –est to the verb:Surely, thou followest the pattern! Wonderful!

This speech by Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew demonstrate both these forms of the verb love:

“Sir, pardon me in what I have to say—
Your plainness and your shortness please me well.
Right true it is, your son Lucentio here
Doth love my daughter, and she loveth him…”

— The Taming of the Shrew, IV.iv

Were Baptista speaking to Lucentio, he would say something like
“Right true it is, thou lovest my daughter, and she loveth thee.”

Alternatively, he could have said, “Thou dost love my daughter, and she doth love thee”. Either way would be correct: it’s just a matter of choosing the right ending for the verbs to fit the sentence, just as we do today without even thinking about it.

This demonstrates that speakers and writers of Elizabethan English had the same flexibility in rearranging and rephrasing the words in a sentence as we do.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
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Those who have grown up with the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611 and therefore during Shakespeare’s life, read and understand  Shakespeare’s language much more naturally than those who have not.

Consider the 23rd Psalm in the KJV and in today’s English:

By applying the two simple rules explained in this post, we discover than this psalm is far easier to understand in its Early Modern form than it might first appear.

The Problem of Female Agency in Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’
#women #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

So, once someone has the basics of thee, thou and thy, and masters the verbs, understanding Early Modern English is much more straightforward. The more one reads, hears or watches Shakespeare’s works, the easier it gets.

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