Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Adventures in the English Language.

I was talking with a guy at work, and I forget what the conversation was about, but he quoted Romeo and Juliet, the Juliet line "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo."  Of course, he quoted this line under a mistaken assumption of what the word "Wherefore" actually means.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that about 99% of the English speakers in the world today do not actually know what this word means, or how it completely and utterly changes both the context of the line from Romeo and Juliet, but also Juliet's character herself, entirely.

Most people believe that the word "wherefore" means "where".  It does not, in fact, mean "where".  It is actually a contraction of the phrase "What is it for"  which, in Elizabethan English was what you would say when you wanted to ask "why?"  At the time, the word "why" had not yet been invented.  You asked either "what is it for" or "wherefore".

Juliet is not asking WHERE Romeo is.  What she is ACTUALLY asking is "Why do you have to be Romeo?"  Or, more simply, "Why does this man that I love have to be the heir to the enemy of my family?"  (reading the rest of this line "Deny thy father and refuse thy name. Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet." makes the meaning pretty apparent, but most people don't realize that line continues)

The importance of the correct meaning of the word "wherefore" to the character of Juliet is pretty huge.  Most people think she's being a silly girl in love, because they don't understand what she's saying in this line.  They think that she's just daydreaming about the hot guy she met, and not paying attention to anything else going on around her, because she's so infatuated with him.  But she's actually a lot deeper a character than that.  She knows exactly what sort of situation she's in, and she's lamenting to herself about it.

Another common misconception with this play is the meaning of the phrase "Star Crossed Lovers".  Many people think that it means that they were meant to be together.  In fact, it means the exact opposite of that.  Again, in Elizabethan English, "Star Crossed Lovers" Actually means lovers that are crossing the stars, or crossing the heavens, or, in plainer English, two people god doesn't want to hook up with each other.  Having the added connotation that their love is a sin, and will be punished as one.  And, of course, if you know how the play ends, yeah, that happens.

Also, in Shakespeare in general, if anyone says the phrase, "I am here."  They are not actually saying "here I am".  In Elizabethan English, "I am here" is short for "I am here with you" or "I stand with you" or in modern English "I agree".  It may sound generally like the same English Language that we speak today, but even Elizabethan English just 400 years ago, was basically an entirely different language than the one we speak today.  It's a language that we can generally understand, or puzzle out the meaning of most of the time, but it is not the same language.

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