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ELIZABETHAN LANGUAGE

All languages change. Differences in pronunciation and word choice are apparent even between parents and their children. If language differences can appear in one generation, it is only to be expected that the English used by Shakespeare four hundred years ago will diverge markedly from the English that is used today. The following information on Shakespeare's language will help a modern reader to a fuller understanding of Othello.

MOBILITY OF WORD CLASSES

Adjectives, nouns and verbs were less rigidly confined to particular classes in Shakespeare's day. Nouns were often used as verbs. In Act 2, Scene i, line 7, 'ruffianed' is used in a context where modern usage would require 'acted like a ruffian':


If it hath ruffianed so upon the sea... and 'gender' meaning 'engender' in: To knot and gender in... (IV, ii, 61).

Adjectives could be used as adverbs. In Act IV, Scene ii, line 240 Iago says: 'It is now high supper-time' where a modern speaker would use an adverbial such as 'quite definitely' instead of 'high'. And verbs could be used as nouns in Act 1, Scene iii, line 391 where 'dispose' is equivalent to 'disposition':

He hath a person and a smooth dispose.

CHANGES IN WORD MEANING

The meanings of words undergo changes, a process that can be illustrated by the fact that 'menu' has extended its meaning to include 'a list of computer programs'. Many of the words in Shakespeare still exist today but their meanings have changed. The change may be small, as in the case of 'opposite' which is used to mean 'opposed' in:

Whether a maid, so tender, fair, and happy, So opposite to marriage that she shunned The wealthy, curled darlings of our nation. (I, ii, 66-68) or more fundamental, so that 'composition' meant 'consistency' (I, iii, 1), 'portance' meant 'behaviour' (I, iii, 138), 'affects' meant 'desires' (I, iii, 260), 'proper' meant 'handsome' (I, iii, 386), 'fond' meant 'foolish' (II, i, 136), and 'presently' meant 'at once'.

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