What in the Word?! ‘Quoth’, the last bequest of ‘queath’
We mere, mortal speakers of that great hotchpotch, the English language, bring our noblest intentions to bear on this old-fashioned, hifalutin-sounding quoth. It’s just an antiquated way of saying ‘quote’, isn’t it? Not quite.
Quoth looks like the word ‘quote’, and because we mainly see it in older texts, we might suppose that the final th is some vestige of those verb endings we come across in the Bible or Shakespeare. To quote the Bard:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…
And to misquote Job, while we’re giveth-ing and taketh-ing: ‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away’.
In those few places we do encounter quoth, the verb behaves not unlike quote. To quote the other poet: ‘Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”’ It might be largely because of Edgar Allan Poe’s ebony bird that the word quoth isn’t fully nevermore in English. But let us dispel the dreary confusion of quoth with quote.
On the quest for quoth
The word quoth begins as a past tense form of the verb queath, from the Old English cweðan, meaning ‘say’ or ‘speak’. Quoth the Raven, in modern English, means ‘the Raven said’.
Let’s get a little more technical about this cweðan.
First, the spelling. The cw sounds like kw, and was replaced by qu in English due to the influence of French and Latin in medieval manuscripts. The ð is the lost letter eth, used in Old English to represent the fricative th sounds of ‘thin’ or ‘then’. Eth also met its death in the Middle Ages.
Second, the grammar. Cweðan is what linguists called a Class V strong verb. As we saw in the case of forlorn, strong verbs mark differences in tense with patterned changes in their stem vowels. These verbs are preserved in modern irregular verbs, e.g. sing/sang/sung or ride/rode/ridden. Their counterparts, weak verbs, simply add the now-usual suffix –ed or a variant – walk/walked, for example.
As such, the past tense of cweðan in the first and third persons was cwæþ, or ‘(I) said’ or ‘(he) said’. This cwæþ would have sounded something like quath, with æ (another lost letter, ash) featuring the vowel of ‘hat’ and þ (and another, thorn) the th of ‘them’.
Fourth, that letter ‘o’. Thanks to a variety of factors, that æ vowel in cwæþ became rounded into an ‘o’. In pronouncing the w of cwæþ, to cite one factor, our lips are already circled in a similar manner required by ‘o’, making it easy just to go with the sound already on the tips of our tongues.
Bequeath, a ‘queath word’?
Cweðan lived on as queath in Middle English (queatheth would have been its ‘giveth’ or ‘taketh’) but died out by the 16th century. Why? Maybe ‘say’ and ‘speak’ got the final word. But one form, quoth, survived, perhaps due to a lingering presence in religious and literary writing.
By the mid-19th century, quoth was a fossil of English verbs of yore, frequently deployed before the subject, just as we see in Poe’s ‘Quoth the Raven’. Knowledge that quoth was the past tense of queath drifted away with the sands of time, and quothers of quoth took it as the present tense. Now, quoth hangs on to our lexicon as a humorous parody of stuffy or sombre proclamations, especially in reference to Poe’s one-note corvine.
Beyond quoth, queath is still quick and queathing, or ‘alive and talking’, in one other verb: bequeath, or ‘leave by will’. It’s an old verb in the language, bequeathed from the Old English becweðan, literally ‘to speak about’, which we can understand as making a sort of official declaration.
Queath, for its part, also once meant ‘bequeath’, occurring in some compelling compounds, as the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, like a queath word, meaning a ‘bequest’, and queathing word, a ‘last farewell to a dying person’. Bequest itself appears to have a distant relationship to queath.
Were it not for the formal language of wills, bequeath may have gone the way of other queath compounds the OED attests on ancient parchment: aftercweþan (‘speak afterwards’ or ‘repeat’); forecweþan (‘foretell’); miscweþan (‘speak ill of’), ofercweþan (‘say over and over’), tocweþan (‘forbid’), wiþcweþan and wiþercweþan (‘deny’ or ‘gainsay’).
It really is a shame all these delightful queath words go unqueathed, as it were. Or as the Raven quoth, ‘Nevermore’.
As for the deeper origins of cweðan, we can find cousins across historic Germanic languages, e.g. Old Dutch records quethan, Old High German queden, and Old Danish kvæde. Their roots are obscure, but we can imagine some sort of Proto-Germanic base of *kwith- or Proto-Indo-European *gwet- before it, with a core meaning of ‘say’ or ‘speak’.
The history of quote is completed unrelated. English gets the word from French and Latin in the Middle Ages. Its earliest recorded sense, which the OED attests around 1387, was ‘to mark a book with numbers’, as one would enumerate chapters and verses in a Bible. The verb ultimately goes back to the Latin quot, ‘how many’, seen in quota, quotient, and quotidian.
It’s not until the 16th century we start finding evidence for the modern quote, i.e., ‘repeating a passage’ or ‘citing’. This is around the same time English sang the dirges of queath. Could it have been because that confusing-looking quote came a-tapping and rapping at the language’s chamber door, leaving queath weak and weary?
We can’t be quite sure, but quoth the linguist: language is changing, evermore.