Words and Reason: Hear Ye, Hear Ye

by Cynthia Clampitt

Cynthia Clampitt
Cynthia Clampitt

It is unlikely that any of you have ever heard Old English (and, to be honest, it’s not highly likely that loads of you have even heard Middle English, unless you studied Chaucer in school). Most people are surprised to learn that Shakespeare was writing in Modern English, but that’s what it was. However, as you’re probably aware, a few things have changed since the bard’s day.

One thing that makes a big difference is the change in the size of the working vocabulary of the general population. Shakespeare’s vocabulary ran around 25,000 words (though I’ve seen higher estimates), while the average vocabulary of English speakers today ranges between 3,000 and 5,000 words. Granted, there are some of us who collect words as if they were gold, but that is becoming less common.

Pity that working vocabularies are so low today, as English is a wildly rich language. Because it in essence merged two languages (Anglo-Saxon and French, after the Norman Conquest in 1066), and has since that time adopted words freely from languages around the world, it has vastly more words than any other language—something like three times as many words as our nearest competitor, German.

English is an amazing language, evolving and absorbing words: kangaroo, pecan, rodeo, pajama, shampoo, kimono, chipmunk, safari, barbecue, and thousands more. However, some of the evolution in modern English makes it harder to understand what one is reading, even when reading things written as recently as the first half of the 20th century.

Today, I thought I’d share a couple of things that could help you if you’re visiting England or if you’re reading anything written a while back (in some cases, that includes anything before about 1970).First is “ye.” About half of the time you see “ye,” it’s not really “ye”; it’s “the.” The Germanic influences on English once included using a lot of German characters in writing and typesetting to represent specific sounds. The “th” sound was represented in English by a German character that looked very much like a Y (much as you see places where s looks a bit like f—it’s not an f, it’s a German s). When you see “Ye” before a noun, it’s really “The.” So if you’re in London and want to pop into Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, know that it is pronounced “The Olde Cheshire Cheese.”

However, there is another English word that actually does use y in front of e—a word that is the equivalent of “you.” If you see “ye” being used as a pronoun, then it is pronounced “ye,” as in “Hear ye, hear ye.”

Which brings us to the second point. If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you may have noticed that many languages have different words for you singular and you plural. The “ye” mentioned above as being “you” was, in fact, the nominative plural of “thou.” English long had plural and singular words for second person, and different words for the nominative, objective, and possessive cases. “You” back in Shakespeare’s day was only one of the options when selecting a second person pronoun.

Nominative                Objective                    Possessive

Singular          thou                            thee                             thy or thine

Plural              ye                                you                              your or yours

So “you” was only used as a plural in the objective case. Hence, “thee and thou” is not the highfalutin usage you may have thought—it just means you’re talking to or about one person.

Finally, the most recent dropout in English is the use of “man” to mean “human.” (Though you can still see the “man” in “human.”) We’ve also gotten rid of “mankind.” Almost every other language has a word that can mean either “man” or “human,” but the fear in the United States that it might seem sexist led to eliminating it most places. However, if you’re reading anything written from about the time of Shakespeare through the first half of the 1900s, you’re going to run into “man”—a lot. So you might as well know if meant everyone, not just males.

This relates to most literature, but also to important documents (“all men are created equal”). People spoke of “the family of man” or “man’s inhumanity to man,” and all the time, they meant “human beings.” A perfect example of how clearly this was once understood comes from the book of Genesis, King James Version (the same King James, by the way, who sponsored Shakespeare after Queen Elizabeth died) during the creation story: “God created man in his own image…male and female created he them.” So man was created male and female: pretty obviously it meant “humans,” not “guys.” It comes from the Old English mann or mon, which meant “human being or person.” If you look it up in Webster’s Dictionary, the first definition for “man” is still “a human.” It can mean “male person,” if you see it in a sentence such as “Bertrand is a fine young man.” But unless it’s clearly referring to a male, it’s probably talking either about a generic human (“a man could get killed doing that”) or to mankind as a whole.

And once again, for those of you working in educational publishing, aside from just being useful to you in your own reading, this is great stuff to add to teachers’ notes as kids start getting into English literature (usually around grades 11 or 12).

BIO: Contributor Cynthia Clampitt is a freelance writer, food historian, and traveler. She loves history, geography, culture, literature, and language—and the place where all of these intersect. She is the author of the award-winning travel narrative, Waltzing Australia, and keeps two blogs, http://www.theworldsfare.org and http://www.waltzingaustralia.com.