Re-Proofing the “Zero Part of Speech” in Hamlet


John Freeman


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 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.

1. All citations are derived from Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623), Old Spelling Transcription, Internet Shakespeare Editions. Michael Best, ed. University of Victoria, n.d. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. Citations reflect the fact that the ISE numbers lines continuously throughout a play.

2. Jonathan Culler, The Pursuit of Signs (New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), 135.

3. Laurel J. Brinton, “Historical Discourse Analysis,” in The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, ed. Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton (New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 142.

4. David Crystal, “Think On My Words”: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 75.

5. Gabriel Egan cites Margreta de Grazia’s observation that such a practice is comparable to Derrida’s notion, “derived from Martin Heidegger, of placing words sous rature (under erasure), marking the imperfection of signification by printing a cross over a word to reveal the inadequacy of the sign without obliterating it.” Gabriel Egan, The Struggle for Shakespeare’s Text: Twentieth-Century Editorial Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 196. See also Margreta de Grazia, “The Question of the One and the Many: The Globe Shakespeare, The Complete King Lear, and The New Folger Library Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995): 245–51 (249).

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