Culture //

The woes of modern linguistics

Yitzi Tuvel is truly exasperated with modern society.


You started that letter wrong.

It’s true. No matter how much effort you put into using the proper tenses and moods, you fucked up that email you just sent, right from the get-go. You do it every time.

Here’s the problem: people used to begin letters with the salutation “Dear Agatha”. If they were feeling particularly frisky, they might write “Dearest Agatha”. Other variants exist for addressing royalty, clergymen, and people not named “Agatha”.

I’d not, until recently, considered the grammatical form of such a salutation, but it appears to be a simple adjective + noun. “Dear” is a fairly unfashionable word meaning “valuable” or “expensive”, and somehow lucked into the position of adjective-of-choice when describing a correspondent one was addressing. “Valuable Agatha!” one was effectively exclaiming. “Pricey Agatha! O, how thou takest mine doubloons, in such time as I am moste myself requiring aid! Verily, thou art an aureate prospector!”

Today, the “dear” of old appears to have been commuted to an altogether tamer “hey”. “Hey Agatha,” you’d begin, real casual-like. Don’t want to spook old Agatha just now. But Agatha is already spooked. Because you gone and done screwed up your grammar.

That One Time Shakespeare Basically Said “Fuck” In Front of Everyone

When addressing someone directly, one employs the vocative case. Consider these sentences:

                  I don’t know Agatha.

                  I don’t know, Agatha.

The first is denying any familiarity with Agatha, that deviant. The second is addressed to Agatha, and could be in response to any number of questions with which sneaky Agatha might just have cornered you: “Where is my walking cane?”, “Who is this Lorelei hussy?”, or “Don’t you love me anymore?”

The only difference between these sentences is the presence of that single comma, which changes the case from indicative to vocative. That comma is the crux of the matter. So once you’ve changed your hail to a “Hey Agatha,” you really ought to add an extra comma for grammatical consistency. I realise that no-one is going to start putting “Hey, Agatha,” at the beginning of their letters because, quite frankly, it looks ridiculous. My only hope is that each time you leave out a vocative comma from a greeting, you understand that you are wrong, wrong, wrong, and that a little part of you dies inside. Because that’s what happens to me, and I don’t see why anyone else should have a good time.

P.S. Oh, that’s right! I promised you a tawdry tale about Shakespeare. Well, slick Willy was all about the sex puns. So in The Merry Wives of Windsor, one of his characters accidentally mispronounces “vocative” as “focative”, and some other character is all, “And that’s a good root!” and then, presumably, all the filthy peasants of London in attendance laugh heartily, spraying a combination of cheap booze and their own premolars onto the stage. It was a different age, truly.