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  • Re-Proofing the “Zero Part of Speech” in Hamlet1
  • John Freeman (bio)

O mysterious apostrophe, teach us to understand your workings! Show us your varied talents here!

—Jonathan Culler2

Designated as “mystery particles” or “the zero parts of speech,” interjections such as oh have fallen under the radar of linguists until relatively recently. Indeed, Laurel Brinton’s description of them reads like an exercise in definition-by-negation:

They are normally marginal in word class, heterogeneous in form, of high frequency, phonetically short, outside the syntactic structure of the clause, sentence-initial, lacking in propositional content, optional, difficult to translate, and stylistically stigmatized.3

Even native speakers who employ these zero parts of speech in a variety of contexts are often hard-pressed to explain the nuances they themselves negotiate in everyday conversations.

In Shakespeare’s day, the mystery of the particle oh was compounded in that compositors had to differentiate between two forms of the interjection, O and oh. Little wonder, then, that some Shakespeare scholars have given interjections short shrift. Although in his “Think On My Words”: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language, David Crystal does briefly take up the interjection in terms of Shakespeare’s use of exclamation marks, he quickly elides the difference, referring to oh and O as “either the emotional noise or the vocative…(it is often unclear which is which).”4 Assuming—wrongly—little difference between the two forms, the editors of the Folger Hamlet ignore discrepancies between the folio and quarto editions by simply defaulting to the O-form, even though they use “square, pointed and half brackets” to indicate other differences among editions.5 [End Page 289] Other editors follow suit by simply defaulting to “O” in all instances where options between the two forms present themselves. In doing so, editors risk erasing an important discourse marker from the play, one whose “mysteries” have been unraveled and systematically defined and categorized by today’s discourse analysts. Where the compositors of the quarto and folio versions of Hamlet diverge in their selection of one over the other marker, the work of discourse analysts can prove a godsend to the modern-day compositor laboring to select the most appropriate form. For readers who are not specialists in discourse analysis but who nonetheless distinguish between the literary O and the conversational oh, selecting the most appropriate form when two variants appear adds to the play’s richly textured discursive contexts and tonal qualities, both of signal importance to how it is received by each new generation.

The findings of discourse analysts can complement the efforts of Shakespeare scholars like Lynne Magnusson, whose focus on social dialogue in Shakespeare concerns “first, verbal reproduction—that is, the reiteration of everyday speech forms; second, verbal maintenance.”6 She maintains that Shakespeare studies have “neglected the interactive features of Shakespeare’s language,” the very features that discourse analysts indicate are negotiated by discourse markers such as oh.7 On the other side of the ledger, Jonathan Culpeper and Merja Kytö note that despite the eminence of Shakespeare, “play texts have not received as much attention from scholars as other literary genres.”8 They observe that plays in particular belong to the class of “speech-purposed” language: that is, they “are designed to produce real-time spoken interaction (they are ‘performed’).”9 In their survey concerning o-related forms in speech-related text types, they find these forms have the highest frequency, suggesting that such forms “have had a strong relationship with the spoken interaction of the time.”10 Following suit, Norman F. Blake demonstrates how the markers “why” and “what” function in Shakespeare’s plays according to prescriptions laid down by modern discourse analysts.11

Focusing on discourse markers brings into relief how such markers often operate as a “bridge between the spoken and the unspoken” in signaling characters’ thought processes.12 In participation frameworks between speakers, such markers facilitate communication in a variety of ways. Finally, a consideration of the relationship between oh and [End Page 290] O demonstrates how the former was associated with everyday speech while the latter constituted for Shakespeare’s compositors a “mémoire intertextuelle,” an inheritance from the Greco-Latin tradition.13...


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pp. 289-312
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