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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: January ::
Re: Moth, mote, mought, moat
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0092  Monday, 18 January 1999.

[1]     From:   Roy Flannagan <
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        Date:   Sunday, 17 Jan 1999 15:53:13 -0500
        Subj:   Moth, mote, mought, moat

[2]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Jan 1999 06:58:37 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.0085 Re: Mote and Moth


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Roy Flannagan <
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Date:           Sunday, 17 Jan 1999 15:53:13 -0500
Subject:        Moth, mote, mought, moat

> recent editions of Midsummer Night's Dream
> differ in representing the name of one of Bottom's attendants.  Should
> it be Mote or Moth, and what is the textual evidence that has caused the
> split?

> Charles Boyce, writing of the "Moth" in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM: "His
> name means-and in Elizabethan English was pronounced-'mote' and suggests
> the tiny size of a speck of dust."

> As you probably know, a "Moth" is featured in LOVE'S LABOUR'S LOST, too.
> Again, his name would have been pronounced "Mote" by Elizabethans.

For further debate on this subject, I have been writing to a friend
about the possibility that the Moth/Mote business might just be a case
of scholarly rumor, starting perhaps with Onions, progressing to the
editorial assumption that it must be true that Moth is the same as Mote
because they were pronounced the same.  Here is our dialogue, doctored
just a little to remove insulting references:

 He wrote:

It's just that everyone seems so CERTAIN they were interchangeable-what
do they know that I don't? Am I just dumb? Does Koekeritz (sp?) deal
with  this in his book on Shakespearean pronunciation, do you know?

I replied:

Scholars are most certain in print when they are afraid they are wrong.
Koekeritz (something like that) is often dubious, especially since we
can only infer pronunciation from rhymed words or from philological
assumption, neither of which tell the whole story, as anyone who has
written a poem can testify.

He added:

SCHOLARLY (irrelevant) bit-Ronberg, _A Way with Words: Lang of English
Ren Lit_: "The original past tense of MUST was MOTE, and this form was
still in use in the early part of the sixteenth century."

 I responded:

Ronberg I would trust more than Koekeritz, and I have seen and possibly
even heard "I mote do that."

He added:

Onions, Shakespearean Glossary, has a comment on MOTH, MSND II,i,169,
"...  but in this use perhaps a form of MOTE, q.v.", but no evidence to
back up the assertion-maybe this is the source of the assertion?

I summed up, arrogantly:

The power of a rumor amongst scholars, passed on as truth. You might
well be right. I would bet the average Elizabethan could tell the
difference in the way the two words were pronounced. Then what about
moat? Why not name the little bugger Moat?

He responded, wittily,

There mought be a moth with a mote in his mouth in the moat-I'm tempted
to post that line!

And I said

I think you should.

There is always the intervening copyist or meddling compositor, not
wanting to bow to the will of the author. In the case of an
actor/playwright, a compositor (from Oxbridge?) might well have felt
like his social superior.  The compositor might have been hired for his
knowledge of Latin and Greek. This may or may not be relevant to the
text of MND.

Are we dealing here with a simple identification of a moth in a
catalogue of natural things that might be associated (moth, peascod,
cobweb) in which a mote might be out of place?  And might it not be
scholarly misinformation or rumor passed from generation to generation
that is causing the change from Moth to Mote in the Oxford edition and
elsewhere?  What are the real differences in pronunciation, in 1595,
among the words moat, mote (or mought, past of must), moth, and mote
(small particle)?  And how can we be sure that the Moth and Mote might
really have been confused, a mote being inanimate and un-self-propelled
and a moth being an insect under its own motive power?

Roy Flannagan

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 
Date:           Monday, 18 Jan 1999 06:58:37 -0000
Subject: 10.0085 Re: Mote and Moth
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.0085 Re: Mote and Moth

Charles Boyce, writing of the "Moth" in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM: "His
name means-and in Elizabethan English was pronounced-'mote' and suggests
the tiny size of a speck of dust."

The more I think about this, the more certain I am that what we have is
a case of scribal confusion rather than phonological identity.

Isn't it possible that in at least +some+ scribal hands of the time,
there was a possible final 'e' / final 'h' confusion-perhaps an 'h' with
a small loop could easily be misread as an 'e'?

From the OED:

MOTE < OE 'mot'.  Much the commonest spelling is 'mote' with occasional
'mot' and 'moat' and even rarer 'moth', suggesting that at the least, a
'th' ending in spelling this word was highly unusual.

MOTH < OE moppe. [where 'p' represents a thorn]  Predominantly, the
spelling ends in -th(e) or -ght(e), with 'mote' as a very rare spelling
form.

All that would suggest to me that the clearly different origins of the
words and the predominantly distinct spellings recorded by the OED mean
that the mote/moth confusion in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth
century would be just that --  a scribal confusion of two words which
were most commonly presented as distinct, and pronounced differently.

I can't see which phonological changes could cause a single pronounced
vowel in 1595 to end up as mote-with-a-long-'o'-sound and
moth-with-a-short-'o'-sound in contemporary pronunciation.

Robin Hamilton
 

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