O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?

In fair Verona, where we lay our…picnic rug.

Last night I was transported back to 16th century Statford-upon-Avon, as two star-crossed lovers’ deaths ultimately reconciled a long standing family feud.  Although, reality did strike when bats squeaked through the Botanical Gardens and the gusty winds of Melbourne forced the crowd to don blankets and drink as much red wine as possible to keep warm.  We were there to see our friend, the amazing Maddie Fields, who was playing the lead role of Juliet.  Her incredible fluency of acting the part of Juliet through the words and speech of a 13 year old girl, who lived nearly 450 years ago, was impeccable.  It was obvious that many in the crowd would have liked to have been that ‘white glove’ on the cheek of fair Juliet.



Maddie spoke the prose of the so-called “Shakespeare’s English” which still influences our English of today.  Then again, when you hear the words anon, or morrow, you realise that you only understand these words through the context of the play.  A lot of the language, one would still understand, but the semantics might have changed, such as the word lame.  And notably, a lot of words have a close derivation from French, which I heard repeated often, such as inondation, vexed, and humours.

There is also a lot of importance put on one’s maidenhead

However, what I find most intriguing about Shakespeare’s work is that it showcases the use of language during the 16th century.  An open door to English cultural linguistics!

If you have ever been interested in, or studied Shakespeare’s plays, you may have noticed the way in which the characters address each other.  Titles such as ser and lady may be used, as well as thou and you.  Such distinction in address (known as the tu/vous distinction) showcases power, politeness and intimacy between people.  Thou is the lesser form of subject pronoun which would have been used between people of low status or people of close relations to show intimacy, or by someone from a higher standing to someone lower (such as a master-servant relationship).  However, You, was used by someone of lower standing addressing someone from an upper class, or between people of high-standing as a form of politeness.

This power hierarchy can be seen in many European languages today, such as the French tu/vous, the Italian tu/Lei or even the German du/Sie.  It was only embedded in English for a short time, but what is fascinating is that even today, we use the polite, high-standing version of the 2nd person singular subject pronoun, you!  In French, there is the verb tutoyer which translates to to speak in the ‘tu’ form.  This is always invited by the person on the top end of the power relationship scale.


According to Brown and Gilman (1960), the tu/vous distinction originally began as the difference between singular and plural.  Here the possible history of power distinction in language is outlined:

“In the Latin of antiquity there was only tu in the singular.  The plural vos as a form of address to one person was first directed to the emperor, and there are several theories…about how this may have come about.  The use of the plural to the emperor began in the fourth century.  By that time there were actually two emperors; the ruler of the eastern empire had his seat in Constantinople and the ruler of the west sat in Rome.  Because of Diocletian’s reforms the imperial office, although vested in two men, was administratively unified.  Words addressed to one man were, by implication, addressed to both.  The choice of vos as a form of address may have been in response to this implicit plurality.  An emperor is also plural in another sense; he is the summation of his people and can speak as their representative.  Royal persons sometimes say ‘we’ where an ordinary man would say ‘I’.  The Roman Emperor sometimes spoke of himself as nos, and the reverential vos is the simple reciprocal of this.”

Through modern English, we now have a different way of expressing power and politeness through our speech, which quite obviously doesn’t involve the use of thou.  Shakespeare shows us the fast evolution and metamorphosis of English, which is why I love the English language so much.  But how do we manage to express a power distinction? I hear you ask… well stay tuned.


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