William Shakespeare is regarded as the greatest English playwright of all time. His works include 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two narrative poems. His plays are performed nowadays more than works of any other playwright. Being one of the most famous Englishmen of all time, among other things he is known for his neologisms, proverbs, and his impact on the English language in general. Scripts of the Bard of Avon contain about 2000 words never used before. These include words loaned from other languages, compounds of known English words, nouns that become verbs, and imaginatively applied suffixes. Although Shakespeare’s works may seem difficult to read and full of incomprehensible words for many untutored readers, they are unlikely to know, how much he influenced modern English.
One of the main reasons that Shakespeare was able to implement his innovations is the very age when he lived and created. The language had entered the stage known as Early Modern English. This period lasted from 1500 to 1750 and was also known as Elizabethan English or Shakespearian English. Prior to that time, the language was not standardized and even messy; obviously, there were no dictionaries. The name of Shakespeare himself well illustrates this as it was spelled in many ways including Shakspere, Shakespeare, Shakkespere, Shaxpere, Shakstaff, Sakspere, and Shagspere. The playwright himself mostly signed as “Shakspere”.
Despite such diversity of pronunciation, a lexicon of a common uneducated Englishman consisted of about 500 words (“Elizabethan Language” par. 5). The language, in general, was considered as informal, and unfit for usage in science, art, and religion. Shakespeare, on the other hand, used about 20,000 words, and no wonder he invented many of them. He was not alone in the process of creating neologisms. Enrichment of the language, however, occurred not by the will of several geniuses.
It was the end of the Renaissance, a period known for its cultural development. The contact with the ancient classics was renewed, and the printing was introduced in England in 1476 by William Caxton, which made books more accessible and led to the rapid expansion of the linguistic environment. After all, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I England became a stable and powerful country and several social transformations occurred back then including the opening of many theatres, where professional actors performed. London has become a linguistic crucible. These factors allowed Shakespeare to create and contribute to English literature and the English language.
In the course of cultural development, Early Modern English has become more standardized and much closer to modern English is spoken today. While there are still differences, studying Elizabethan English is much easier than studying a foreign language. For instance, Shakespeare used an apostrophe for genitive expressions and marked the negative with ‘not’ instead of obsolete ‘ne’. He broadly used suffixes in the process of derivation. One of the most influential examples is the usage of suffixes <-er> for the comparative form of adjectives and <-est> for superlatives. Also, adverbs become formed with the suffix <-ly>. There were still notable differences.
Verbs in combination with a second person and singular form were used with postfix <-st>. A distinction between forms of second-person pronoun thou and you existed and the latter was used as a marker of social status. In the Middle, English thou was used as a pronoun of the plural form of the second person, and Early Modern usage was loaned from French, where vous was used in a similar way (Fetherston 712).
Besides the grammar, Shakespeare has also influenced English poetry. His usage of iambic pentameter in his sonnets was loaned by many other poets of not only his time but later centuries as well. George Steiner even stated that English poets of the Romantic period were “feeble variations on Shakespearean themes.”
As was mentioned, Shakespeare has implemented many neologisms. While the exact number was debated by researchers and now counted as high as 1700, his impact still was huge. It does not mean, however, that this playwright invented all these words by himself. They may have been used before though there are no records of them surviving to the present day except Shakespeare’s works. About half of his neologisms are used now, and they have the same meaning as they did in the 16th century. For instance, frugal, horrid, and obscene.
Having little regard for grammar rules, as they have barely existed, Shakespeare felt free to play with words and create new ones. With prefix he introduced words like “unlock” and “unhand,” still commonly used. The compound was another way of inventing new lexemes. “Blood-stained” and “barefaced” are well-known examples of this. He changed the meaning of words as well. For instance, he was the first to use the word “angel” to describe a human’s beauty, not referencing to some divine being. Another Shakespeare’s method was turning nouns into verbs, which is also common today. The word “shudder”, for instance, was first used in the play Timon of Athens.
Speaking of etymology (meaning the donor language, not the ultimate source language), Shakespeare’s lexicon consisted of 43% Germanic and 54% Roman-Latin words. The last 3% are difficult to classify. He used the stylistic difference between the languages as Germanic was used in more personal communication (Damascelli 387), while Roman is more dignified. The prevalence of Romanic words is not surprising, as Shakespeare studied at the Stratford grammar school, where he should have read plenty of Roman classics. Nevertheless, in his derivations, he often violated the norms of Latin word-formation. Many of his neologisms were ill-formed and did not accustom to the language.
Doubtfully that Shakespeare has cared much, as he invented new words and played with language, in general, to create a certain effect for a specific context. Inventing and loaning new words was common throughout the entire Renaissance in many countries (Adamson 246). The surge of cultural life made Early Modern English very inhomogeneous. Thousands of new words were invented and implemented during the period of dynamic changes, confusing people.
It is difficult to interpret the words of Shakespeare as neologisms and archaisms of his time though sometimes his characters themselves tell if are they using new words or meanings. In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio thinks about Tybalt the following: “The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting fantasmines, these new tuners of accents! “By Jesu, a very good blade! A very tall man! A very good whore!” Here he uses the word “very” as a positively intensifying one, and that became a trend by the end of the 16th century (Crystal 78).
As dialogues are the cornerstone of any play, the works of Shakespeare allow researchers at a certain degree to study not only written but also spoken English of that time. They do not give a complete understanding of spoken language and its stylistics, but they may give certain clues, depending on the way its characters are portrayed. Fluellen in Henry V is using constructions not common for Early Modern English like “How melancholies I am!” which represents Welsh dialect. Regional differences, however, are represented in Shakespeare’s works to a lesser degree than social ones, like class distinctions. Markers of class distinction may be seen in titles character use, addressing each other, their insults, and oaths. Words like the master, wench, or gentle can say much in terms of characters’ temperaments and relationships.
Returning to Shakespeare’s neologisms, there is an important question to ask, why did he use certain words in certain situations? Some words unfamiliar to the contemporary reader are of course simply reflecting the daily life of those times. Sometimes Shakespeare has implemented new words in order to maintain rhythm in his verses. The very beginning of Henry V includes the word vasty, which obviously originated from vast that was unsuitable as it would not fit the rhythm of the poetic line.
There are much more neologisms, Shakespear has invented. It may sound surprising, but he was the first to implement word manager, and without one the modern office work would have never been the same. As one researcher stated, “We should not study Early Modern English and then study Shakespeare. Rather, we should study Early Modern English alongside and through the medium of Shakespeare. The overall influence of the playwright on English culture is undeniable, and this is the reason, why his works are studied ubiquitously. While some may complain that they are difficult to read, the works in Middle English are literally impossible to read for a modern public. Therefore, anyone who considers himself educated should know, how much have Bard of Avon done for the modern English Language.
Adamson, Sylvia. Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language, Boston, USA: Cengage Learning, 2001. Print.
Crystal, David 2003, Language of Shakespear. Web.
Damascelli, Adriana Teresa 2003, Shakespeare: The Power of Language and the Language of Power. Web.
Elizabethan Language 2012. Web.
Fetherston, Tony. English Historical Linguistics, Volume 1, Berlin, Germany: Walter de Gruyter, 2012. Print.