Shakespeare’s Contributions to English (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1, read about it here. We learned that Shakespeare added nearly 2,000 words to the English lexicon, including words like hurry, puke, monumental, and majestic.

One benefit of the many words that Shakespeare coined is that we can make better distinctions between meanings. For example, fantastical for Shakespeare meant something more along the lines of imagined.  Today’s meaning has positive connotations, and couldn’t be used to describe a murder, unlike “…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…” (1.3.138, Macbeth.)

Last time I mentioned that Shakespeare might have wanted to create language to fit his iambic pentameter style of writing. One way he did this was with “what say you” and “what do you say.”  (Twelfth Night, 4.2.89; 4.3.31)  One has an extra syllable, but they have the same meaning.  Another device that he also used was making contractionsNe’er instead of never, o’er instead of over, are examples.  It could have easily been a way for Shakespeare to fix up a line and give it the right rhythm and length.

However, the main reason that Shakespeare used so many words was to reach a broad audience.  His viewers ranged from peasants to royalty.  The variations of language that he put forth encompassed many different social classes.  He created his characters through the language.  He could turn a character into someone vulgar simply through their vocabulary, and his audience would recognize these traits as soon as the words left the players’ mouths.  One such vulgar word was now-a-days (used by the grave-digger in Hamlet). Although this is not one of his additions to our language, it is still a prime example of how he used vocabulary (both in use at the time and new words that he coined) to shape his characters.

There are many ways that Shakespeare created his new words.  He went to school until the age of 14.  In his writing we can see that he wasn’t very enthusiastic about the school systems at the time; his general references to education tell us that.  Instead, he found “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks.”  (As You Like It, 2.1.18)  As a boy, he was more interested in nature.  It is probable that he worked as a lawyer’s clerk or a page, because he was very well acquainted with courtly speech.  He may also have worked as a schoolmaster himself, which could explain his use of Latin to create new words, his knowledge of other languages, and his amazing rhetoric.

His words came largely from manipulation of the current language.  He was able to switch words from one part of speech to another part.  He turned adjectives into adverbs.  He made adjectives into nouns.  For example, “…a sudden pale…usurps her cheek…”  (Venus and Adonis).  Other examples are “…say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true” (Measure for Measure, 2.4.1283).  He made adjectives and nouns into verbs (to fault, to force).  For example, “…which happies those that pay the willing loan…” (Sonnet IV, line 6.)  And, lastly, he made verbs into nouns.  An example is “…recounts what horrid sights seen by the watch” (Julius Caesar, 2.2.16.)  The watch is used to mean watchmen.

Shakespeare was a master not only of words, but of language. His influence on the English language was monumental and he is still one of the most iconic literary figures of all time.

This concludes Part 2 of my series on Shakespeare. There will be more to come!

If you missed Part 1, click here.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. ecle ecle #

    eah, but what language did tthe words come from?

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