Richard Hudson and Geoff Barton on place adverbs

17th September 2004 at 01:00
A small part of English has undeniably shrunk. It's something called place adverbs.

In Shakespeare's day, writers had a bigger range of tools to use when writing about places: * AT the place;

* TO the place;

* FROM the place;

* therethitherthence;

* herehitherhence;

* wherewhitherwhence.

A useful group activity is to search for these words in the Oxford Shakespeare at - a wonderful resource.

For example, in The Taming of the Shrew you find a single sentence which beautifully illustrates the difference between "there" and "thither": "There will we mount, and thither walk on foot."

Adverb one tells us where we are; adverb two where we are heading - a neat, effortless distinction.

However, even in Shakespeare's day this elegant system was already tottering. "Here" was regularly used with "come", as in: "Here comes fair Mistress Anne" or "Our queen and all her elves come here anon".

We still find "hither" after "come", as in "Come hither, Mistress Ford", but never before it ("hither comes..."). The modern "Here comes..." was already taking its place, a Trojan horse heralding the end of the old system.

And so we're left with just one of Shakespeare's three columns - adverbs signalling "at the place". However, this impoverished system of place adverbs fits very comfortably in modern English, whose prepositions show the same lack of interest in the difference between "at" and "to".

For example, "out of" could be either a place ("I left it out of the fridge") or a direction ("I took it out of the fridge"); and likewise for "over" ("He lives over the river", "He crossed over the river") and many more.

A good classroom activity would be to collect prepositions and classify them. You'll find that very few can be used only for places (maybe only "at"), a handful specialise in directions (to, into, from) and the majority can be used in either way.

How do we manage with such an impoverished system of adverbs and prepositions? Well, on the whole the lack of distinctions in these words is offset by the choice of verbs: going across the bridge is a direction, and living across the bridge is a place. We don't often face real ambiguity, but KS3 writers should be alerted to the danger.

We're not knocking modern English. It's a wonderful treasure-house of useful tools, and we can do things that Shakespeare couldn't. For example, he couldn't write "It is being built", because progressive passives weren't allowed until the 18th century. Language change brings gains as well as losses, but we still envy Shakespeare his place adverbs.


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