Sentences and Speech Acts

For the most part, Elizabethan letter-writers were not worried about constructing syntactically 'correct' sentences. In fact, many perfectly literate individuals probably had not even heard of a sentence and, if they had, it is a concept they more likely associated with Latin (sententia). Nor would many have given much pause over punctuation marks. Indeed, some writers use hardly any punctuation at all. The reason relates directly to the transitional nature of writing in early modern English.

Whereas earlier, medieval rhetorical conventions provided a predictable structure for short, to-the-point letters (often composed and delivered orally), which superseded the need for much punctuation, as literacy increased and letters expanded these models swiftly became outmoded. Continuity with earlier traditions existed in the conventional openings and closings of letters. For example, a typical early modern letter might begin by expressing concern for the addressee's health and close by committing him or her to God. But the lengthier, chattier body of early modern familiar letters fell outside the remit of such predictable medieval formulations.

One way of reading letters that are sparse in punctuation is to follow the speech acts they perform. In this vein, Elizabethan letter-writers often used performative speech-act verbs, which provide some structure. Unlike other sentences, these performative sentences do not just say something that may be proved true or false ('The hat is yellow'), or state an opinion ('The hat is ugly'). Instead, they constitute the actual 'doing' of a socially recognised act. In present-day English, performatives are more often restricted to special occasions, as in 'I pronounce you man and wife' to make a marriage official, or 'I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth' to make it so. These types of sentences, and the verbs which form a crucial part in their construction, were much more common in letter-writing of Bess's era.

For example, when performing a directive speech act (i.e. when asking the addressee to do something), early modern letter-writers often used performative verbs such as pray. So, while the letters Bess wrote herself contain little punctuation, there are many sense units which begin with the phrase I pray you, which to some extent help designate where one thought stops and another begins. In fact, directives are by far the most common type of performative found in Bess's correspondence: most often pray, but also beseech, as well as desire and entreat. In particular, we find that pray was used almost ubiquitously, regardless of the correspondents' relationship or context of use:

I pray your Ladyship lett me know your pleasure for ye parsonage of Tormorton ID 166 [Gilbert Talbot to step-mother and mother-in-law Bess, 1579]

I praye the as thow doest love me lett me schortlye heare from the for the qvyetyng off my vnqvyetyd mynde ID 059 [Sir William St Loe to wife Bess, around 1560]

I prey you lette them stay ther for a shorte tyme ID 183 [Bess to her fourth husband Shrewsbury, around 1577]

I pray you yn any other thyngs that well be a helpe to my byldeynge Let yt be done ID 100 [Bess to her servant James Crompe, around 1560]

I earnestly praye you to hasten Sir Henry Brounker hither ID 132 [Bess to Sir Robert Cecil, 1603]

By comparison, we can observe that beseech was more formal and reserved for especially deferential displays:

my moste honored Lord, I beceach your Lordship know that I greatly reuerence your Lordship ID 231 [Bess to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, 1590]

I besech you to make the best construction ID 126 [Bess to Sir Robert Cecil, 1600]

I am desirus & most humbly besech your majestie yat she may be placed elswhere ID 128 [Bess to Elizabeth I, 1603]

If a speech act was significant enough to be labelled explicitly with a performative verb, it signals to us that the action it performed was important to the writer and their culture. Asking for things (in the correct way) was clearly one such act. However, while performative directives (such as pray and beseech) were the most common, there were also other types of performatives used in Bess's correspondence, including, for example, assure, commend and take leave (of an addressee):

I assure you I will see hym acquited ID 105 [Bess to Thomas Paget, 1582]

I Commend your good Ladyship to the good direction of goddes holy spirite ID 206 [Edwin Sandys, archbishop of York, to Bess, 1584]

I humbly take my leue, besycheing, god to send your Ladyship your hartes desyre ID 093 [Anne Talbot to Bess, c.1575]

One speech act which particularly characterises Bess's own writing, is that which expresses social bondage or indebtedness to particular addressees by employing some form of the verb bind:

[I] bynde me and myne in bonds that we shall euar beare to doe your Lordship thankfull saruyce ID 230 [Bess to Lord Burghley, c.1586]

your pore frende for euer as I am bowden ID 111 [subscription to a letter from Bess to Sir John Thynne, c.1558]

You shall greatly binde me vnto you in showing your honorable favour to them ID 139 [Bess to Robert Cecil, 1603]

someche the more am I bounden to rest your faythefoull and thanfoull saruante ID 120 [Bess to Elizabeth I, 1578]

All of these - assuring, commending, taking leave and binding - are, in their own ways, reflective of the society and values we find inscribed and reiterated in Bess's correspondence. For example, favour (whether rhetorical, financial and legal) was one of the key mechanisms of early modern socio-political structure. In this regard, Bess realises that an effective way of getting things done is to offer her own service 'in bondage' to influential addressees.

By comparison, in present-day English performative verbs are much less common. For example, directive speech acts (i.e. those involving asking) are now usually accomplished through indirect language, which merely implies the directive intention ('Could you lend me some money?') whereas the use of performatives is reserved for rare, emphatic purposes (such as the use of 'asking' in 'All I am asking is that you lend me a little money!'). It is difficult to pinpoint why modern English lost its explicit performatives when compared to earlier states of the language, but it has been suggested that the far greater frequency of explicit performatives in earlier Englishes may be to do with the more oral nature of previous English-speaking cultures when compared to our own. Early modern culture was without a doubt a much more oral one than ours today, an observation especially relevant for letters, which are often described by linguists as closely linked to spoken language. Therefore, to track speech acts and categorise them through the use of performatives is not only useful as a way of following the writer's train of thought (especially where punctuation is lacking), but it also provides insights into how Bess and her contemporaries used language, perceived their interactions with one another and constructed their social activities in writing.

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References and Further Reading

  • The standard authoritative text on the history of Western punctuation practice is Malcolm Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), although, for the Renaissance, Parkes focuses almost exclusively on humanist writing and does not consider more familiar texts. See also Vivian Salmon, 'Chapter Two: Orthography and Punctuation', in The Cambridge History of the English Language Volume 3: 1476-1776, ed. by Roger Lass (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 13-54.
  • For rhetorical methods of composition in the late medieval period see Malcolm Richardson, 'The Dictamen and its Influence on Fifteenth-Century English Prose', Rhetorica 2 (1984): 207-26.
  • Surprisingly little has been published on the English sentence from a historical perspective. One view is by Ian Robinson, 'Appendix 1: The History of the Sentence', in The Establishment of Modern English Prose in the Reformation and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 166-84.
  • Irma Taavitsainen and Andreas Jucker, 'Speech Act Verbs and Speech Acts in the History of English', in Methods in Historical Pragmatics, ed. by Susan M. Fitzmaurice and Irma Taavitsainen (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2007), pp. 107-38.
  • On directive verbs, such as pray and beseech, from a historical perspective, see Thomas Kohnen, 'Towards a History of English Directives', in Text Types and Corpora. Studies in Honour of Udo Fries, ed. by A. Fischer, G. Tottie and H. M. Lehmann (Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2000), pp. 165-75.
Author(s): Graham Williams, April 2013


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'Bess of Hardwick's Letters' was developed by The University of Glasgow with technical development provided by The Humanities Research Institute at The University of Sheffield
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