In the play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as Hamlet and Richard III, the phrase “declension of pronouns” that comes up as a description of language. That’s not a phrase that I remember being taught in English class, and instead relates to Latin, the language of education for Shakespeare’s lifetime, and indeed across Europe. Here today to explain for us exactly what a “declension” might be, how to use them, and what it helps to understand about things like nouns, pronouns, and spelling for 16th century English when you explore Shakespeare’s plays, is our friend, and returning guest here to That Shakespeare Life, Professor David Crystal.  

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David Crystal is a professional linguist, connected with the University College Bangor as well as the University of Reading. In 1995, he was awarded the OBE for services to the ENglish language, and he became a fellow of the British Academy in 2000. He’s published over a hundred books, including The Stories of English (2004) and The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (3rd edn, 2018), and his most recent book coauthored with his son, and professional of Original Pronunciation on stage, Ben Crystal, titled Everday Shakespeare, is out now.

More on David Crystal

I’ll be asking David Crystal about:

  • What is a declension of pronouns?  
  • Since we know that about Sir Hugh’s interrogation of William here, it makes me wonder—is understanding a linguistic term like “declensions of pronouns” legitimately something a young Grammar School student would have known how to do or been taught in school?  
  • Was there any one writer, in particular, who was the celebrity of English language standardization, or someone whose printed manuals on proper use of the English language had the most traction for the 16-17th century?
  • …and more!

Charles Barber, Early Modern English, (Edinburgh University Press, 1997, 2nd edn)

Terttu Nevalainen, An Introduction to Early Modern English (Edinburgh University Press, 2006)

David Crystal, The Stories of English (Penguin, 2004)

The latest is the 2-volume Jonathan Culpeper, Andrew Hardie & Jane Demmen, The Arden Encyclopedia of Shakespeares’ Language (Oxford University Press, 2023), but at £400 a copy it’s not really an everyday purchase! 📚

Additional Books/Resources Cassidy wanted to share 

Everyday Shakespeare: Lines for Life by Ben Crystal and David Crystal

The History of the Exclamation Point

As English was developing as a language in Shakespeare’s lifetime, spelling and punctuation were caught in the middle of a wild debate about what was going to be the standard for the language as a whole.

In his book titled The English Grammar, Ben Jonson wrote specifically about the exclamation point saying it was to be used to mark the end of a distinct sentence, but only in cases where you intended to “pronounce” the sentence “with admiration.” (Shown left).

Florence Hazrat writes in her latest book about a man named John Hart who also had very strong opinions about the exclamation point in 1551. Learn more in this episode with Florence all about the 16th century history of exclamation points.

What’s Inside the Detailed Show Notes for This Week:

  • Comparative diagram of old English use of declensions of pronouns
  • Chart that compares singular vs plural uses of the words
  • A page from Mulcaster’s The Generall Table
  • Illustration of Sir Hugh Evans from The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Title page of Richard Mulcaster’s Elementarie
  • Table Alphabeticall by Robert Cawdrey in 1613
  • The Merchant’s Taylor School in 1815
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!