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‘Methinks’ Isn’t What You Think

Aside from “methinks,” English doesn’t really have dative constructions anymore, but many other languages still do.

By
Jonathon Owen, read by Mignon Fogarty,
A man who would be likely to say "methinks."

 

Have you ever wondered what's up with the weird word “methinks”? Why does it use an object for a subject (“Me thinks”), and why does it have an -s like a third-person verb (“thinks”) even though it seems to be in the first person? The answers are weirder than you may think!

But to find those answers, we’ll need to take a little dive into Old English, the form of English that was spoken between about 500 and 1100 AD. 

Not the Verb You’re Thinking Of

Old English had two different but related verbs, "þencan," meaning “to think,” and "þyncan," meaning “to seem or appear.” (The þ character is called a thorn, and it represents either the "th" sound in “thin” or the “th” sound in “then.”)

In Middle English these two verbs merged together in form, so they both were pronounced “thinken,” even though both the “seem” and “think” meanings remained distinct. But the one that meant “seem” could be used in a way that strikes modern English speakers as not just foreign but ungrammatical—it could appear with an object in place of the subject, specifically a dative object. But we’ll get to that in a second. First, we need to learn what the dative case is.

Seems to Me like a Dative Construction

Modern English has just one object case (as in “me” or “him” or “her”; “Squiggly likes her”), but Old English had two separate object cases: the accusative, which was mostly used for direct objects, and the dative, which was mostly used for indirect objects.

In a sentence like “She gave me the book,” “the book” is the direct object—it’s the thing being given. “Me” is the indirect object, because I’m the one receiving the thing that’s being given. Note that we can also say, “She gave the book to me,” with the indirect object “me” following the preposition “to.” So in some constructions, “me” and “to me” are equivalent. 

In Old English, using “me” to mean “to me” was more common, even in constructions where we would need the “to” today. For example, the “me” in “woe is me” was originally a dative—it really means “woe is to me.” (Our modern object pronouns actually come from the dative case; the accusative forms disappeared centuries ago, and the datives simply took their place.)

And the “think” verb that meant “seem” took objects in the dative case. That is, you could say “It thinks me” or “It thinketh me” to mean “It seems to me.” This is called a dative construction. The “me” acts a bit like a subject, but the grammatical subject is still “it.” But the “it” is a dummy subject—it doesn’t really refer to anything—so it was often omitted, just as we often say “seems to me” without the “it.”

And when the “it” was omitted, the dative object sometimes moved up to take its place. Thus, instead of “It thinketh me,” speakers of Old and Middle English would sometimes just say, “me thinketh.” And voilà: you have a verb that appears to have an object in place of a subject.

People said this often enough that eventually it fused into one word, “methinketh” or “methinks.” So when Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” says, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” she’s not saying “I think the lady doth protest too much”; she’s really saying “Seems to me the lady doth protest too much.”

In practice, though, there’s not a lot of difference between “I think” and “seem to me”—they mean basically the same thing. And eventually English speakers stopped using “think” to mean “seem” aside from this one weird word, so we stopped thinking of it as a way to say “it seems to me” and started thinking of it as a funny old-timey way to say “I think.”

Dative Constructions in Other Languages

Aside from “methinks,” English doesn’t really have dative constructions anymore, but many other languages still do. In German, for example, if you want to tell someone to turn up the thermostat, you don’t say “Ich bin kalt” (literally “I am cold”)—that would mean that you’re emotionally cold. Instead, you say "Mir ist kalt,” which literally means “to me is cold.” As with “methinks,” the dummy subject is dropped.

The Spanish verb gustar works much the same way. “Me gusta pizza" means “I like pizza,” but it more literally translates to “pizza is pleasing to me.” And in French, if you want to say that you miss your family, you say “Ma famille me manque,” which sounds like “My family misses me” but literally means “My family is missing to me.”

But It Wasn’t Just ‘Methinks’

“Methinks” may have fossilized into one word, but from Old English through Shakespeare’s time, you could still use other pronouns besides “me" with “think." That is, you could also say “him thinks” or “us thinks” or any other dative pronoun. Of course, it’s hard to say how things seem to someone else, but still, us thinks it might be fun to bring it back.

This article was written by Jonathon Owen, an editor and linguist who blogs at arrantpedantry.com.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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