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ELIZABETHAN ENGLISH

All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller understanding of Romeo and Juliet.

MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES

Adjectives, nouns, and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day. Adjectives were often used as nouns. In the Prologue to Act II, the chorus uses 'sweet' as a noun: Tempering extremities with extreme sweet.

And verbs could be used as nouns as when 'jaunce', which meant 'trudge along', was used to mean 'a long hard walk':

Fie, how my bones ache. What a jaunce have I! (II, v, 26) Adjectives could also be used as adverbs. 'Scant' is used for 'scantly' in: And she shall scant show well that now seems best (I, ii, 101) and 'merry' is used for 'merrily' in:

Rest you merry (I, ii, 83) and occasionally as verbs as in:

Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name (III, ii, 98) where 'smooth' means 'speak well of'.

CHANGES IN WORD MEANING

The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that 'chip' extended its meaning from a small piece of wood to a small piece of silicon. Many of the words in Shakespeare still exist today but their meanings have changed. The change may be small, as with 'gossip' which meant 'good-natured, convivial woman':

Speak to my gossip Venus one fair word (II, i, 11) or more fundamental, so that 'hoodwinked' meant 'blindfolded' (I, iv, 4), 'crowkeeper' meant 'scarecrow' (I, iv, 6), 'film' meant 'gossamer' (I, iv, 66), 'breaches' meant 'defensive walls' (I, iv, 84), and 'owes' meant owns: So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called Retain that dear perfection which he owes (II, ii, 45-46)



VOCABULARY LOSS

Words not only change their meanings, but are frequently discarded from the language. In the past, 'leman' meant 'sweetheart' and 'sooth' meant 'truth'. The following words used in Romeo and Juliet are no longer current in English but their meanings can usually be gauged from the context in which they occur.

BILLS (I, i, 70) weapons
PROOF (I, i, 208) strong armor
UNATTAINTED (I, ii, 87) not affected
TEEN (I, iii, 13) sorrow
ATOMI (I, iv, 57) small creatures
TRENCHER (I, v, 2) large plate
NYAS (II, ii, 167) young hawk
GYVES (II, ii, 179) fetters, chains
MICKLE (II, iii, 11) great
DISTEMPERATURE (II, iii, 36) mental disturbance
HIDINGS (II, iv, 43) prostitutes
CHEVERIL (II, iv, 83) soft leather
ELL (II, iv, 84) 3 feet 9 inches (45 inches)
COIL (II, v, 66) fuss, bother
PILCHER (III, i, 79) leather garment
AMERCE (III, i, 192) penalize
SEELING (III, ii, 46) blinding 2
LATED (III, iii, 6) belated
TRENCHED (III, iv, 26) cut
FLAWS (III, iv, 62) sudden gusts
OWE (III, iv, 112) own
BARK (III, v, 131) small boat
MAMMET (III, v, 184) puppet
CHAPLESS (IV, i, 83) without the lower jaw
ORISONS (IV, iii, 3) prayers
LOGGERHEAD (IV, iv, 20) fool, blockhead
WEEDS (V, i, 39) clothes
CAITIFF (V, i, 52) miserable, wretched

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