February: Shakespeare, Hamlet, and the Danish Language

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com’st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I’ll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane. O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance, but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements, why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly enurn’d,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel
Revisitst thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous, and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

(Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4)

The superb flow of this speech arises from the match between its complex and troubling thought and the movement of the poetry’s pentameters. The basic line has ten syllables with an alternating pattern of weak and strong stresses. That could become clumsy and deadening except that this speech is perfectly pitched to the breathing of the actor. The metrics render the prince’s thoughts as they come to him. It takes a good reader to handle Shakespeare’s blending of rhythm and sense. It takes a very great actor – an Olivier or a Cumberbatch - to bring the speech to life with voice, gesture and movement complete.

Within the running pattern of the iambics, the lines are controlled by strong inner structures. These are felt in the doublings in first four lines. Each line of the speech has a strongly marked mid-pause – the caesura or cut. Today, these are often pointed by the punctuation - a modern aid for the modern reader. Then, the actor pointed the lines by voice control, adding a rich cadence to the already flowing lines.

The first line is built upon a double apostrophe (in its old sense: an exclamation addressed to a divine or absent person). The next three lines build on matched contrasting halves.  First, the prince invokes the protective messengers of God calling simply ‘Angels’. Second, he invokes the angels in their theological role as ‘minsters’ bringing the saving power of God’s love. The tradition is that Hamlet makes the sign of the cross at this point, following his prayer by a repeated questioning. Who has not got questions for a dead father? But Hamlet wants to know if the father comes as good or evil spirit, from heaven or hell, with malicious or generous intent?

‘I’ll call thee Hamlet’, Hamlet the son says to Hamlet the father. The pronoun is telling. ‘Thou’ and ‘thee’ were still features of common speech in 1599, but they were beginning to disappear in London. Perhaps that was because too many special conditions had come to surround the use of the second person singular.

Cannily all of those conditions could apply to Hamlet’s ‘thouing’ and ‘theeing’. As do modern French parents and children, Elizabethan parents and children ‘thoued’ and ‘theed’. So did lovers. So did owners of dogs and cats. The second person singular expressed intimacy. It could also express superiority. Masters ‘thoued’ and ‘theed’ servants. And yet, it was also the form to use when addressing God. Hamlet’s use is ambiguous, disturbing, dark, and Shakespeare’s language is simply magnificent even at its simplest:

Say, why is this? Wherefore? What should we do?

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark focuses on a Danish prince’s melancholy caused by the fratricidal murder of his father by his uncle and the uncle’s marriage to the prince’s mother. By that marriage, the uncle takes possession of the kingdom of Denmark. At the start of the play, the ghost of the father tells the son to kill the usurper. By the end of the play, the son has killed his uncle, a councillor and the councillor’s son. In the process, the son brings on the deaths of himself, his mother, the woman who loves him and two courtiers set to betray him.

The play is Shakespeare’s longest, and one reason for its length is that the prince delays so long before acting on the promptings of his dead father. Instead of killing the king, the prince analyses himself in soliloquies that are counted a glory of the English language. He probes the ghost’s and his own motives. He questions his own courage and honour. He sets tests and lays traps. He argues and delays. It is fair to say that he delays only by the standards of Elizabethan revenge tragedy. He brings about the deaths of eight people in sixteen weeks or so. That is fair going. But why the prince delays is not the question here. The question here is: Why does he delay in East Midlands English?

In Hamlet’s speech to his dead father, 61 out of the 127 words provide the bones of the piece. Those 61 are pronouns, conjunctions, prepositions and modals – technically, closed-class words. 66 words provide the flesh: nouns, verbs, adjectives – technically, open-class words. 34 of the open-class words are Germanic in origin, and 32 come from Anglo-Norman, French and Latin. The number of non-Germanic words is impressive, but they cannot explain the West Midland / East Midland divide. The Germanic words tell that story.

Combining both word classes, Hamlet’s Germanic words amount to 95 out of 127, 75%. The majority of them are Common Germanic words. They are found in one form and another in English, Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic. Hamlet uses the words: answer, blasts, father, Moon, night, see, shake, steel, tell. Those words had developed from Old English: andswaru, blǽst, fæder, mona, niht, scacan, stǽli, tælige. They were matched by the Old Danish words: annsvar, blǫ́str; faðer, mani; natt, skaka, stala, tælie. Two thousand years ago, English and Danish had been the same language. Less than a thousand years later at the time of the first Viking raids in England, Old English and Old Danish were still close enough for an Angle and a Dane to have communicated - just. By the year 900, Old English and Old Danish had been forced into a new closeness.

Shakespeare’s childhood speech was West Midlands English, the dialect of Warwickshire, but it was East Midlands English that Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, spoke on the London stage.

About the year 890, following battle and treaty, Watling Street (now the A5) became the boundary between the kingdom of Alfred of the English and the kingdom of Guthrum of the Danes. Guthrum was given control of the land east of Watling Street and north of the Thames, a territory that became known as the Danelaw. A condition of the treaty was the conversion to Christianity of the Danes. The English who inhabited the Danelaw were the descendants of the Angles, Christian from the seventh century and willing to intermarry with the newly-Christianised Danes. East Midlands English began to evolve.

There is less written evidence than might be expected for the way in which Danish influenced English. The Norman invasion of 1066 meant that English became less and less a written language as its place was taken by French and Latin. Danish words and forms may have been deliberately avoided in writing for some time after they had been readily accepted in speech. Old English manuscripts show little if any Danish influences. Middle English manuscripts from the Danelaw show an astonishing impact of Danish. It was the more noticeable because it showed in verb forms and pronouns and commonplace nouns and verbs. The borrowings from Danish were not learned borrowings. They were home, street and market borrowings.

Old English ‘they be’ had become Middle English ‘they are’. Old English ‘hi, hem, hir’ became Middle English ‘they, them, their’. Old English ‘he walketh’ became Middle English ‘he walks’. It may even be that forming a question by reversing the subject-verb order so that ‘I am’ becomes ‘Am I?’ was taken from a Danish formula. Those changes could be heard in almost every sentence, every day in the East Midlands of the fourteenth century.

While it is rare for one language to borrow verb forms and pronouns from another language, it is common for one language to borrow nouns and verbs from another language. There are about nine hundred Old Danish words in Modern Standard English. They include ‘egg’, ‘husband’, and ‘leg’. Normally, a language borrows a word because it expresses a meaning not already present, but the English did not need the Danes to tell them what a leg, a husband or an egg was. The closeness of Old Danish to Old English allowed those borrowings. To this day, in the dialects of the North and of Scotland, there are thousands of Danish words.

Sometimes, the Danish word did not replace the English word but came to exist alongside it: kirk and church, dike and ditch, skirt and shirt, skin and hide, ill and sick. Kirk and church are distinguished geographically; skirt and shirt are distinguished as the female and male versions of similar garments; ill and sick are distinguished as the middle-class and upper-class terms for the same condition. There is sometimes a substantial, sometimes a slight and sometimes no difference in meaning.

The bearing of the Alfred and Guthrum’s Treaty on the language of Hamlet becomes clear. East Midlands English was London’s English and so it was that when Shakespeare came to London, he heard speech that had long before absorbed and made native Danish elements. East Midlands English was the talk of the town. Within two hundred years of Shakespeare’s death, East Midlands English, refined and rebranded as Court English, was ready to begin its spread as the Victorian public-school accent. It had shed any association with the Midlands, did not call itself a dialect, and had technically become a sociolect.

In 1585, Shakespeare named his twin children Hamnet and Judith after a married couple in Stratford. Hamnet is a diminutive of Hamo, so is Hamlet. Hamo derives from the Germanic word for ‘home’. When Guthrum and his followers had taken over East Anglia, another Dane, Rollo, and his followers had taken over the Cotentin Peninsula. Rollo’s descendants became the Dukes of Normandy; his followers became the Normans. When they invaded England in 1066, they brought the name Hamo to England, and they brought much more. That second Danish invasion of England radically changed the English language because those Danes spoke French and they took control of the whole country.


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Next Month’s English Project Language: In March, the English Project will look at The Life of Henry the Fifth and the influence of the French Language on English.