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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Language Geek

As a word geek, I've always had an interest in language and linguistics. I even took a linguistics class as a freshman in college. I've listened to several History of English books and podcasts, but recently I found a college-level linguistics class taught by a professor on Audible. There's actually a whole series of different lectures in different disciplines.

One of the lectures was about how languages change through semantic drift and vowels/consonants soften over time. A T becomes a D sound for example. What was really interesting to me, though, was when he discussed Shakespeare.

The professor said (and apologies because I don't remember his name and I'm too lazy to look it up) that if he goes to see a Shakespeare play at the theater without pre-reading it, he doesn't enjoy it and it's difficult to understand what's going on. He talked about seeing the faces of people in the theater at intermission and how so many of them didn't appear to be enjoying the experience. He said it's because the English language has had so much semantic drift from when Shakespeare wrote his plays to now.

As a Shakespeare geek, I'll confess this is true. I always pre-read his plays before I go to the theater because the professor is exactly right--the meaning of words has changed a lot.

The example he gave was Romeo and Juliet. That scene when Juliet stands on the balcony, Romeo on the ground below, and says: "O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" He said that we take this as where are you, Romeo and we think it odd because he's right there.

But that isn't what she's saying. According to the professor, in Shakespeare's time, wherefore meant why. What she is saying is: Why are you Romeo? Which makes a lot more sense with the lines that came next about "deny thy father and refuse thy name." She's lamenting that he's a Montague and she's a Capulet, that their families are enemies, that they can't be a normal couple.

I ran into something similar in my Shakespeare class. In Hamlet, he tells Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery."

Of course, I took nunnery to mean convent and that made a kind of sense in context. Then I learned that nunnery was slang in Shakespeare's time for a whorehouse. That totally changed the meaning of that scene.

Even today, we see words change their definition. To my great dismay on some things, on others, I think it's a good thing. Like the word decimate. To me it means destroy, more than destroy. It means to all but wipe out the enemy or whatever. And I was corrected by someone who said decimate means to reduce by 10%.

Okay, maybe it meant that once, but look at now. That's a secondary definition, a signal of how the meaning of that word has shifted over time.

This kind of thing fascinates me--like I said, word geek--and I love regionalisms like pop vs. soda vs. Coke, etc. As you can imagine, I'm totally geeking out listening to this audio university lecture series and I have hours more to go. Yea!