Protesting too much

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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.]

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45 Comments »

  1. Dan Milton said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 8:35 am

    For a poet's appreciation of "doth", see Ogden Nash "How Be The Little Busy Doth?" http://www.angelfire.com/ia/suzisms/ondoth.html

  2. garicgymro said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 9:43 am

    It's not such a significant change in English (in fact, it's very everyday), but I'm surprised you didn't mention the semantic shift in "protest".

    [(myl) Perhaps because it was discussed at length in the cited earlier post?]

  3. Robert Coren said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    In what idiolect (or other variant) of Modern American English is the verb "protest" stressed on the first syllable?

    I note that an (apparently) exact equivalent of me[-]thinks persists in modern (or at least relatively recent) German: mich dünkt.

  4. garicgymro said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:14 am

    D'oh! Now I feel silly.

  5. Brett said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    @Robert Coren: I usually pronounce the verb "protest" with stress on the first syllable. I grew up mostly in Oregon, but I've lived all over the northern United States, and I don't know when I picked up that stress pattern.

  6. Boris said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    Re "Bec liciaþ þaem cyninge", I'm not an expert of old English, but would that be something like "books are liked by the king"? That sounds awkward, but it's still a correct sentence today, isn't it? So it's just that the verb and/or object indicating this without using "by" that was lost, right?

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 11:20 am

    @Brett: I also stress the first syllable in the verb but the second syllable in the noun. I grew up in Wisconsin but have lived in New England for most of my life.

  8. RP said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 11:25 am

    No, Boris: "liciaþ" here means something like "are pleasing". You might be able to able to translate it as "are liked", but it's not a passive. The sense is "the books are pleasing to the king". It's similar to the Spanish use of "me gusta" (it pleases me) in place of "I like".

    Robert: Tony Kroch says that "cyninge" is dative. So the German sentence you cite isn't an exact parallel, since "mich" is accusative. An exact equivalent would require "mir".

  9. Belial said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 11:26 am

    Hypermodern English might render that sentence as "the king likes him some books."

  10. RP said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 11:27 am

    (To clarify my previous comment: presumably not just "cyninge" but also "me" in "methinks" is dative, since it's called the dative subject.)

  11. Lazar said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 12:02 pm

    As an American from the Northeast, I stress "protest" on the first syllable for both the noun and the verb, although for some of the less vernacular usages of the verb (e.g. as a verbum dicendi) I'd be open to giving it final stress.

  12. Thomas said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 12:29 pm

    @Boris: well, as a L1 speaker of an archaic sister dialect (German), I'd say it's rather straightforward comparable to "(The) books please the king", with "the king" being dative/recipient/insert-your-label and the verb being active (no "be", no gerund) and agreeing with the (grammatical) subject "books".

    Among the fun and handy features is that the dative experiencer shows quite some 'soft' features of a subject, e.g. quite often preceding the verb, being a pronoun and referring to some previously established entity. "Mir gefällt …" ~"Me pleases …" is a standard translation of "I like".

    Robert's "mich dünkt/deucht" is one (archaic) member of a group of "accusative experiencers" – my instinct would be happy to use dative "mir" there.
    My personal favorite in that regard is "mich friert" ~"me freezes" where my German and standard tradition agree to disagree every time I have to consider it.

  13. Thomas said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 12:38 pm

    RP was much faster to finish their comment :)

    Regarding the "me" case: at some point it ended up as a fixed phrase, so that the "dative" label ended up as a historical category. Not sure when without checking back.

    I'd consider myself a guinea pig for a (limited) breakdown of the dative-accusative distinction.
    High German has been in that phase for quite some time with respect to pronouns, at least. Famous 'funny' feature of some dialects/sociolects such as Berlin and Hamburg. 'Neat' way to discriminate against Low German (substrates).

  14. dw said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

    @Brett: I also stress the first syllable in the verb but the second syllable in the noun. I grew up in Wisconsin but have lived in New England for most of my life.

    That is fascinating: I have always done the opposite. It is more common for verbs to be stressed on the second syllable and nouns on the first (e.g. "research").

  15. Eric said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

    Coming from the west coast of the US (growing up in California and living for several years in Washington), I stress the verb protest on the second syllable in general, except in the sense of political rallies and the such. So I'd stress the second syllable in something like
    "But it wasn't me!", Bob protested.
    but the first in something like
    We went to the rally to protest the war.
    The noun form is always stressed on the first syllable.

    Perhaps the difference is between a specific spoken protest and the act of protesting.

  16. maidhc said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

    I was taught in school that there is a class of words where the noun is distinguished from the verb by which syllable is stressed. Examples: protest, research, recess, etc. Is that a regional thing then?

  17. Jq said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

    Following on Eric's comment, I think it's been argued (by Kiparsky?) that in Modern English there are now two verbs with the spelling 'protest', one with the stress on the second syllable, and the other (derived from the stress-initial noun) with initial stress. For me as well (a speaker of Southern American English), the two verbs PROtest and proTEST mean slightly different things, with the stress-initial one referring more specifically to political activism, etc.

  18. Brett said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    @Eric, Jq: The difference in stress for different meanings isn't something I'd considered, but that may be what I'm doing. I almost never use the verb "protest" except in the political sense (and after thinking about this a bunch, I don't think I could give a reliable answer for how I pronounce non-political "protest").

  19. KevinM said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

    I (raised NJ, educated in New England) reserve PROtest for a specialized context, as in an antiwar PROtest. Just as I use DEEfense only for sports.

  20. Robert Coren said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 3:51 pm

    @RP: Yeah. It's always struck me as odd that that's accusative in German, as also for physical experiences such as cold and hunger.

    As to the stress pattern in protest: This is weird. I can't recall ever hearing anything but second-syllable stress in the verb and first-syllable in the noun for any of protest, contest, project, object, reject and probably a host of others. I'm not sure about contract; I'm inclined to go with the above, but I think maybe I've heard first syllable for the verb when it means "enter into a contract" (as distinguished from "become smaller").

  21. Joseph Bottum said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    KevinM–I love those words with accent shift to distinguish verb from noun ("We comMUNE with nature at the COMmune"), but I hadn't thought about the word "defense" before you mentioned it.

    You're right that the "DEfense" pronunciation seems mostly sports-related in the U.S. these days, although I might stress it that way in sentences designed to highlight the word in some way, like "The best OFfense is a good DEfense." (And notice another stress distinction: the noun "OFfense," meaning aggressive movement in sports or war, and "ofFENSE," meaning an outrage or a violation.)

    I've noticed, though, that sportscasters will sometime use "defense" as a verb–"You have to defense against the receivers coming out of the backfield"–meaning, I think, something like "build a defensive scheme" more than just defend against the receivers on a particular play.

    But I can't recall whether they do a kind of back-formed accent shift or not, to distinguish the verb form of the word. Do they say "You have to DEfense" or "You have to deFENSE"?

  22. Rubrick said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

    I prefer to think of "doth" as the obsolete verb form of "d'oh", as in "Homer doth twice in Season 5, Episode 9".

  23. Ellen K. said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

    I think there's a meaning difference between DEfense and deFENSE.

    DEfense is the people doing the defending. A usage which is restricted to sports, thus the pronunciation being restricted to sports. A sports team has a good (bad, whatever) defense. A country, however, has an army, navy, military, department of defense.

    deFENSE is the act of defending. With "department of defense" (or defense department), department is the who, and defense refers to the act. In sports, this pronuniation would be using when talking about "their defense of their goal".

    So we might say "the deFENSE of the goal by the DEfense".

  24. Ellen K. said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

    P.S. perhaps the contrast with offense is the origen of the first syllable stress in DE-fense and OF-fense in sports.

    Curiously, while DE-fenses engages in de-FENSE (at least in some sports), OF-fenses never engage in of-FENSE. (Well, okay, they might, but so might the defense. Offending is not part of being an offense.)

  25. Eorrfu said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 7:13 pm

    @belial. That hypermodern version is great but I seem to prefer using the AAVE be to get "The King be likin' books".

  26. Dave K said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

    The dative experiencer was still used in Shakespeare's time, as in Romeo's "Neither, fair saint, if either thee dislike".

  27. J J Perry said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 4:14 am

    Just one objection to this – is quite pronounceable. Indeed, modern English has at least one word with that exact cluster, namely . So it's not a matter of pronounceability here, but of (morpho-)phonological well-formedness.

  28. J J Perry said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 4:25 am

    Arg, forgot to escape angle brackets in the post above. I was objecting to "protestth" being called unpronounceable and my example of a word with the same cluster was "eighth". I did just realise that there's an [s] before the cluster in "protestth", but is "protests" is pronounceable then it shouldn't make a difference…

  29. Lazar said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 5:42 am

    @JJ Perry: Despite the overlaps in distribution, /s/ and /θ/ have different constraints on their use. For example, /θ/ certainly can't occur with a following stop or nasal at the start of a syllable as /s/ does – no "thpin", "thtop", "thtray" or "thmite". In the absence of any cases of stop+fricative+/θ/, I'm inclined to believe that English doesn't allow it.

  30. Lazar said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 5:44 am

    Sorry, that should be "fricative+stop+/θ/".

  31. J J Perry said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 6:34 am

    Lazar – as I say, it's a question of wellformedness, not of pronounceability. A little experimentation shows that it's not at all phonetically problematic, and of course English speakers have no difficult articulating that cluster across word-boundaries (eg. best#thing). As to whether English disallows it within word… well, it certainly disallows it in monomorphemic words. In words of more than one morpheme I'd say it's ambiguous – the cluster in question will always be broken up in verb+suffix combinations (as we see in the example in question), but note that *all* consonants trigger epenthesis here, not just clusters, so that we see "letteth" despite /tθ/ being pronounced in /eighth/. So this particular case of epenthesis is morphologically conditioned. The question is, would a number ending in /st/ followed by the ordinal suffix '-th' be permissible. Trouble is, there aren't any numbers ending in /st/ which means you won't be able get any data on this from usage. But say I coin a word /kest/, which refers to the number 1,450,995. My intution is that if you tested them, English speakers would tend to pronounce "1,450,995th" as /kestθ/.

  32. J J Perry said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 6:40 am

    Actually, come to think of it, "-th" is the result of deletion, so it's not epenthesis anyway…

  33. Zeppelin said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 7:04 am

    Pleasingly enough, German preserves both of those verbs (denken "to think" vs. mich dünkt "it seems to me"), as well as the Dative for (some) experiencer verbs (mir(DAT) ist kalt "I'm cold"), AND the semantically empty "do" in many dialectal and colloquial varieties (a friend of mine will regularly say, f'rex, er tut gehen — "he doth go", i.e. "he goes"). Fun!

  34. Ellen K. said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 9:20 am

    @J J Perry

    For some of us, eighth is pronounced like it's spelled… no t before the th.

    Also, protests is very different from protestth because t and s are (or can be, and are in that word) pronounced in the same spot, whereas going from t to th requires moving the tongue down, rather than mere allowing a little air through while basically keeping it in place.

    I would say pronouncibility is variable. I presume you actually pronounced it before saying it's pronouncible. For some of us, it isn't, and neither is /eɪtθ/ (the first pronunciation of eighth as listed in Wiktionary).

  35. Colin Fine said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 10:26 am

    Dative experiencer (with "like") is also in Marlowe: "if it like your highness". When I encountered this, I supposed it to be formed on the analogy of "please" rather than being an authentic historical form.

  36. Ted said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

    Ellen: Are you asserting that "aith," with no contact between tongue and palate, is a standard pronunciation of "eighth"? That's not consistent with my experience.

  37. JR said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 3:38 pm

    Never knew "protest" had that meaning in Hamlet. Yet many say that Shakespeare's English presents no difficulties for them… Also, much of what this post discusses points out that a good bit of the poetry a modern English speaker finds in Shakespeare could have just been regular usage at that time.

    And I say this within the context of discussions I sometimes have about how difficult or foreign-sounding different languages of, say, the 17th century are to modern speakers. I contend that Cervantes is way easier to read than Shakespeare, for instance.

  38. Ellen K. said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

    Ted, standard enough to be in most dictionaries, anyway. (Okay, I only checked one before posting, but I've checked several now.) It's always listed second, but it is listed in most dictionaries.

    I think that's one where the two variations are close enough that we don't notice the difference and don't realize there's variation. I certainly never did, and (judging from the dictionaries) I have the minority pronunciation.

    Also, the one dictionary that shows any regional differences, Wiktionary, only lists that as American. For RP it only has one pronunciation. Curiously, for GenAm there's 3, the first being with a glottal stop: /eʔθ/, /eɪtθ/, /eɪθ/

  39. Alex Blaze said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 11:19 pm

    Awesome post!

  40. RP said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 3:13 am

    I'm actually not sure how I pronounce "eighth" in casual conversation (and I think sometimes people think they pronounce words a particular way but don't really – obviously a bit less likely among people here, but still something to bear in mind). In careful formal speech I would pronounce the "t", I think, but otherwise I don't know (and I'm British, not quite RP though, except in my name).

    The interesting thing about the US Department of Defense is that it was originally called the Department of War (actually it was merged with the Department of Navy). The UK's Ministry of Defence was originally called the Ministry of War. So "defence" in the names of these departments is a sort of Orwellian euphemism.

    The Canadian, Irish and Australian departments seem to have always used the word Defence, though.

  41. Alon Lischinsky said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 4:06 am

    An analogous archaism is meseems, where we can see the syntactic divergence of think and seem in Modern English: the latter still uses an impersonal+OBJ construction, but the former has lost it under the influence of the þyncan/þencan merger.

  42. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 12:01 pm

    RP: I don't think 'Defence/Defense' is exactly a euphemism, because 'War' was the branch of government specifically in charge of the Army, and, as you say, 'Defense' is the result of the union with the Navy (and in Britain at least with Air, which was another department). Indeed, in Britain for a while both terms were in use; there was a Secretary of State for War, but he, along with the other service ministers, answered to the Minister of Defence.

  43. f campbell said,

    May 28, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

    When Mary Queen of Scots arrived in Edinburgh, she was not much impressed with the place: too cold, too dark, and too many killjoy presbyterians. The Scots had tried to welcome her with some music, but her (undiplomatic) response was "this music likes me not". I think I read this in John Knox's History of the Reformation in Scotland. It only stuck in my mind because i was learning Spanish at the time. This music likes me not, indeed.

  44. xyzzyva said,

    June 8, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    On the topic of auxiliary do, is there any speculation on the cause for its rise? Was there some sound change I can't think of that left directly-negated and -inverted verbs (other than to be and the modals) ambiguous in enough contexts that the "emphatic" form came to predominate (or to survive the end of the use of do-support elsewhere)?

  45. Florian Blaschke said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 11:54 am

    Modern English think is actually descended from þyncan, not from þencan, whose "c" was pronounced as "ch"; it became Middle English thench and dropped out of use eventually. It is striking how Middle English thench on me corresponds one-to-one to German denk an mich, yet another demonstration of the syntactic conservativity of German. In English, of course, think took the place of thench and eventually took over its "active" syntactic construction, but obviously not one-to-one since Modern English uses the preposition of instead of on.

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