Shakespeare’s language is widely regarded as the pinnacle of English. But this status is supported by multiple myths: ideas about language that have departed from reality (or even from what is plausible). Those myths send us down rabbit holes and make us lose sight of what is truly impressive in Shakespeare: what he did with his words.
The Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language project at Lancaster University, which uses large-scale computer analysis, has transformed what we know about Shakespeare’s language. Here, incorporating some of his findings, we revisit five things you probably thought you knew about Shakespeare but aren’t actually true.
1. Shakespeare coined a vast number of words
Well, it did, but not as many as people think – even reputable sources assume more than 1,000. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust puts it at 1,700, but carefully add that this number is about words whose first appearance is in Shakespeare’s plays.
The word “snail” appears for the first time in a text attributed to Shakespeare, but it is difficult to imagine that it derives from a creative poetic act. More likely, it was in circulation in the spoken language of the time and Shakespeare’s use is the earliest record of it. Estimates of how many words Shakespeare allegedly coined do not usually distinguish between what was creatively coined by him and what was first recorded in a written document attributed to him.
Even if you don’t make this distinction and include all the words that appear first in a work attributed to Shakespeare, whether they are coined or recorded, the numbers are grossly inflated. Working with academics of literature and linguistics Jonathan Hope and Sam Hollands, we used computers to look up millions of words in pre-Shakespeare texts. With this method, we have found that only about 500 words first appear to appear in Shakespeare.
Of course, 500 is still huge, and most writers don’t mint a new word or make a first recording.
2. Shakespeare It is the English language
The myth that Shakespeare coined a lot of words has partly fueled the myth that Shakespeare’s language makes up a quarter, half, or even all of the words in today’s English language.
The number of different words in Shakespeare’s texts is around 21,000 words. Some of these words are repeated, and this is how we arrive at the total number of about a million words in the works attributed to Shakespeare. (To illustrate, the previous sentence contains 26 words in total, but “di”, “words” and “a” are repeated, so the number of different words is 22). The Oxford English Dictionary contains around 600,000 different words, but many are obscure technical terms. So, let’s round down to 500,000.
Even if every word within Shakespeare had been coined by him (which obviously is not the case, as noted above), it would still be only 4.2% of today’s English language. Hence, Shakespeare could have contributed only a very small fraction, albeit most likely more than most writers.
3. Shakespeare had a huge vocabulary
Ridiculously, popular claims about Shakespeare’s enormous vocabulary seem to be guided by the fact that his writings as a whole contain a large number of different words (as noted above, around 21,000). But the more you write, the more opportunities you have to use more different words. This means that Shakespeare is likely to come out on top of any vocabulary size speculation simply because he has an exceptionally large surviving body of work.
Some researchers have used other methods to make better guesses (they are always guesses, as you can’t count the words in someone’s mind). For example, Hugh Craig, a Shakespearean scholar who pioneered the use of computers for language analysis in the literature, looked at the average number of different words used in samples of the same length. He found that, compared to his contemporaries, the average frequency with which different words appear in Shakespeare’s play is decidedly … average.
4. Shakespeare has universal significance
Sure, some themes or aspects of the human condition are universal, but let’s not get carried away and say that its language is universal. The historical linguist’s mantra is that all languages change and Shakespeare is not exempt.
Changes can be subtle and easily lost. Take the word “time” – surely a universal word denoting a universal concept? Well no.
For each word in Shakespeare, we used computers to identify the other words they associate with, and these associations reveal the meaning of the words.
“Time”, for example, often occurs with “day” or “night” (for example, from Hamlet: “What are you that usurps this hour of the night”). This reflects the understanding of time in the early modern world (roughly, 1450-1750), which was more closely related to the cycles of the moon and sun, and thus to the larger forces of the cosmos.
On the contrary, today associated words such as “waste”, “consume” and “spend” suggest that time is more frequently considered a precious resource under human control.
5. Shakespeare didn’t know much Latin
The above myths are popular myths, spread by academics and non-academics alike (which is why they are easy to find on the Internet). Myths can be more limited.
Within some theatrical circles, the idea emerged that Shakespeare did not know much Latin. In fact, contemporary playwright Ben Jonson famously wrote that Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek”. Shakespeare lacked a university education. College-educated, jealous and haughty playwrights may have been eager to bring it down.
Working with the Latin scholar Caterina Guardamagna, we discovered that Shakespeare used 245 different Latin words, while in a corresponding series of plays by other playwrights there were only 28, the opposite of what the myth dictates.
The fact that Shakespeare used so much Latin without a college education makes his success in using it even greater.
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
email@example.com receives funding from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), referring to grant AH / N002415 / 1.
Mathew Gillings does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that could benefit from this article and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.