A guest post from Tony Kroch:
The line "The Lady doth protest too much, me thinks" from Hamlet that Mark Liberman blogged about at the end of last month struck me because it encapsulates in one sentence several significant changes that the English language has undergone. We are lucky that the written record is rich enough to let us see how features we take for granted today developed over time.
To begin with, the expression me thinks is curious since it is obviously a combination of me and thinks and both words seem to be in the wrong form. The source of this common Middle English expression is the so-called "dative subject" construction, which is common to many languages and was widely used in Old English. In this construction a noun phrase in the dative case functions in a subject-like way in place of the usual nominative case subject. The construction is commonest with a class of verbs called experiencer verbs, a class to which verbs with the meaning of Modern English to seem tend to belong. In our line, the verbal part of the expression looks like the modern verb to think but it actually descends from the verb þyncan, which meant "to seem" in Old English and got confused at some point with the similar sounding þencan, "to think." English is famous for losing the dative experiencer construction in Middle English, some time after the dative case collapsed with the accusative. In Old English, the Modern English sentence "The king likes books" would have come out as "Bec liciaþ þaem cyninge," with bec in the nominative case and cyninge in the dative. The verb agrees with the nominative plural bec and not with the singular "dative subject" cyninge.
The word doth has both an interesting spelling and interesting syntax. The spelling "doth" obviously contrasts with Modern English "does" and it is well-known that these two spellings reflect a dialect division between northern and southern England that goes back to Old English times. Here the spelling "thinks" shows the northern ending alongside the southern one in "doth." How and why the northern -s took over from the southern -th has long been a subject of investigation and we have come to believe that it reflects the growth of London as a metropolis from the fourteenth century on. At that time the north of England (prosperous due to the wool trade) had more cultural influence that at other times in English history and migrants from there made a large contribution to London's growth and to the language of the capital, which then influenced the local language throughout the south and midlands. The change in the 3rd person singular present tense verb form is not the only contribution to the grammar of Modern Standard English from the northern dialect. Even more striking is the third person plural pronoun they (including objective them, and possessive their). This pronoun was borrowed from the Scandinavian language of the Vikings who invaded northern and midlands England in the 9th and 10th centuries. They replaced the native Old English hi, (accusative hi, dative him, and possessive hira). The -s form of the third singular present tense may also be due in an indirect way to the Vikings, but this is a bit speculative.
The syntax of doth is just as interesting as the form. The verb do has two distinct uses in Modern English: it can be a general purpose action verb or it can be an auxiliary verb that appears in negative sentences and questions. In examples like "You didn't do your job" or "Did you do your job?" we see both uses at once in different positions in the sentence. The doth in our line is the auxiliary, which came into the language sometime in Middle English. The other do, which English shares with all of the other Germanic languages, is much older. It might strike a modern speaker as odd to find a do in our line, since the sentence is neither a negative nor a question. In fact, the word appears in only one of the three earliest texts of Hamlet, the second quarto. In other two early texts, the first quarto and the first folio, the verb is just protests. In early Modern English, do could be used without semantic effect in ordinary affirmative sentences. This usage reached its peak at about the time of Shakespeare's birth, when the written record shows it being used in almost 10% of such cases, but it declines steadily after that. Of course, if the auxiliary is emphatically stressed for any reason, then do is still used today, but that is not the case in our Hamlet sentence. It is interesting that the version of our line with do uses the -th ending, while the other two versions use -s. With -th, the verb would be spelled "protesteth." There was a tendency to drop the "e" in the -eth ending but in this case that move would have given the unpronounceable "protestth". So, it is perhaps not an accident that the choice of the -th ending goes along with the use of do. There is evidence that do was used more often in Shakespeare's time in cases like this one.
A final note on meter of the line. Mark points out that the line occurs in a prose passage and that only the second quarto version of the line can be scanned as iambic pentameter. It's interesting to me that the line seems to be preserved in our cultural memory in an altered form ("Methinks the lady doth protest too much"), which is easily scanned as iambic pentameter. This scansion does require that protest be scanned on the second syllable and the more common stress in everyday Modern American English is on the first. Disyllabic verbs with prefixes usually do have stress on the second syllable (provide, include, etc.) but there has been some tendency over time for the stress in these verbs to shift to the first syllable in line with the dominant trochaic pattern for English disyllabic nouns. For the verb protest, in particular, the shift seems to be very recent and still incomplete since the Oxford English Dictionary and the online Merriam Webster both indicate stress on the second syllable, though the noun is, of course, stressed on the first. If the older stress was obligatory when the altered form of the line entered the culture, then we have a possible motive for the use of the "meaningless" do, as it supports the metrical regularity of the line, while the one word forms protests and protesteth do not.
[The above is a guest post by Tony Kroch.]