Monday, June 25, 2007

Shakespeare's English

I came across the website discussing Shakespeare's contributions to the English language:

This is a list of words allegedly invented by Shakespeare. You can also follow the link in the main post to another page listing phrases coined by the Bard. I'm a little dubious about the attribution of some of these to Shakespeare. But what I found the most intriguing were the comments (debate) following the post.

Most of these posts make good points, though I don't agree with them all. One poster says that Shakespeare didn't invent these words because they were words in other languages (accuso from Latin, bandito from Italian). These words may very well have derived originally from other languages, but if Shakespeare was the first to use them in English, he can be accurately described as the coiner. I wouldn't go so far as to say inventor - to reach that status I would think it would have to be a totally unique word used and understood in English (think Kleenex, which everyone uses interchangeably with tissue). Shakespeare wouldn't have been as popular as he was he if he had gone about inventing random words all over the place. Nobody would have understood his plays because all his newly invented words would have no standing in English and no comprehension to the ear. Instead, he took existing words from other languages, or even from English, and used them in new and inventive ways. It's in this way that his plays are so genius (if he was even the one who wrote them)

One of the wonderful things about the English language, in my opinion, is just how flexible it is, and how many languages it ties its roots to. 50% traces back to Latin, and a considerable portion back to German ancestry as well. The Latin was greatly helpful in learning French - the basic words are mostly different, but once you get to the intermediate and advanced words, you can with some confidence (if you don't know a word in French) say the English word with a French accent and it often comes out at least close (idiosyncracie-idiosyncrasy, recidive-recidivism). Of course, this also creates some very funny (and embarassing) moments when the word isn't quite the same thing (preservatif-condom).

English is still evolving, though much, much slower than it was in Shakespeare's day. Hopefully, it won't be evolving towards the bad grammar conventions that the internet world has created (misuse of your and you're, I and me). I remember learning in school that "all right" was correct, but apparently the language has evolved in the last 20 years such that "alright" (blech) is now in the dictionary. And then there are the grammar rules that everyone was doing wrong (overuse of "me" where "I" should have been used), so everyone had "I" "I" "I" drummed in, and now everyone says "I" instead of "me" ("just between you and I"). One of my major pet peeves.

But another of the main points on the website is the overfocus on the detail instead of the grand scale. The genius of Shakespeare is the way he strung words together, more so than the actual words he used. The fact is, in an age when the language was still gaining its footing, and most people did not read for fun (or even read at all), Shakespeare was able to write plays for the masses with such inventive use of language and be perfectly understood. Students may struggle today with it a bit, and not understand all the nuances of his speech, but overall, his plays remain fairly timeless. It's the themes, the storylines which still remain relevant (as indicated by the plentiful modern adaptations of his works) and not just the language which makes Shakespeare one of the greatest writers in history. Had he created as many phrases and words as he had, but churned out the drivel we often see in hollywood now, I bet you he would not have endured. So as much as we may admire his writing for his creative use of words at his fingertips, it's the whole of the works which truly cast him as the genius author he was.

I read an interesting novel a while back Harvard Yard, by William Martin (ISBN: 0446614505). This novel is an interesting read - drawing in both researched historical data about both Shakespeare and Harvard, and tying it in to the modern-day speculations (with slightly thriller overtones) about the true identity of Shakespeare. I would recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the lore surrounding Shakespeare, or just for a fun read in historical fiction.


Mercy said...

Good post.

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