When to use Archaic Registers?

I’m testing my new blog, and so will add an entry talking about the role of archaic registers in English. For us, the oldest form of the language which most speakers can readily interpret is Early Modern English (the language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible).

Normally archaic registers are used in formal settings such as a legal procedure or a religious ceremony (and some non-religious ceremonies). But people, being people also use them in other situations, but the question is how “productive” are they? That is, how fluent are modern speakers with these constructions?

As you might expect, the answer is fluent, but not always accurate. For instance I saw a gravy ad with Puritan/Quaker characters in which the husband proclaimed “Thou doth make good gravy?” Alas, it should probably have been “Thou dost make good gravy”. Modern speakers know that both doth and dost are archaic, but aren’t usually sure which form matches with what agreement/tense. I wouldn’t either except that I am a grammar geek.

But actually the example that came to me this morning was from the Roswell TV show during an incident when one of the main characters (working as a security guard) participated in a vending machine theft of the office Snapple. Specifically, the group took bottles from the boxes without paying for them (and even took cases home), and then were fired (oops). Naturally the character (Michael’s) girlfriend (Maria) gets mad and reprimands him:

Michael: We all got fired [for stealing the Snapple].

Maria: Wait. You got the whole department fired?

Michael: Whose side are you on? I didn’t get everybody fired. We all drank of the Snapple.

Maria: Wait, “drank of the Snapple.” When did we get on Biblical terrain here?

The question is why the “Biblical” (archaic) register? My guess is that Michael has gone into defense attorney mode and thus has defaulted to his idea of legalese. Theoretically you wouldn’t predict someone arguing with his girlfriend would have access to a second register – after all Michael is probably fairly stressed and that often inhibits language production. But, as most people who have been in bad arguments know, that prediction does not hold up. You CAN access additional registers even in the heat of the moment.

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