Shakespeare’s Language

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library is sending 18 original copies of the First Folio on a tour of the United States. First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare will exhibit the Folio in each of the 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico.

The Kansas City Public Library—my library—is the host for Shakespeare’s First Folio during its Missouri showing in June. We’ve planned a year’s worth of activities and programming around it.

So it’s pretty much all Shakespeare, all the time around here. Being a library, we like to emphasize the influence that Shakespeare’s writing had on the course of literature and language in the English-speaking world.

One fact that lots of people love to cite is that Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words and phrases in the English language. This fact tends to be presented as though he sat down and made them up out of whole cloth (a la Lewis Carroll).

I find this scenario unlikely. I consider it far more likely that Shakespeare was merely the first (or the first that we know of) to write down many words and phrases that were already being used in his era.

(Also, even the OED disagrees with the attribution of some of the words and phrases that are commonly attributed to Shakespeare. io9 wrote a decent piece about this.)

It’s a basic principle of etymology that words and phrases achieve a degree of popularity in speech and conversation (both popular language and also specialized argot) for some period of time prior to when they’re first written down. So when an etymologist attributes the first occurrence of a word to Shakespeare, they’re not declaring that he invented it, merely that he was the first known to use it in writing.

If all these words and phrases were already being used by people in Shakespeare’s era, why did they only appear in his work and not in the works of other writers of the day?

The fact that so many words and phrases appear in Shakespeare’s work for the first time (and not in anyone else’s) suggests that he drew on a pool of language that other writers of his era were unaware of or ignored. Specifically, I believe that his work is steeped in the common vocabulary of the groundlings to an extent greater than any of his contemporaries.

We forget that Shakespeare wasn’t actually a literary writer. We teach him as literature today, laud his poetry and his contributions to our language and culture, but in his time he was a populist and much of his work is vulgar (particularly in comparison to other writers of his era).

I suspect the words and phrases attributed to Shakespeare likely originated in the conversational English of so-called common folk. He elevated this common language and used it as a tool to craft tremendous linguistic flights, but I don’t believe that he invented any of it.

Because that’s something else we tend to forget: It’s rarely the literati who drive the evolution of language. The most inventive and creative linguistic growth virtually always comes from unrestricted popular, common usage (think sailor patois in the Middle Ages, Cockney rhyming slang, free style hip hop, l33t / txt / lolspeak, the vibrancy of swear words, et al, ad nauseam).

Shakespeare used words and phrases that no other major writer of his time did—that’s why his usage of them is the first known appearance in print. Given the vulgarity of much of his work, it’s not too great a leap to posit that his linguistic realm was the conversational English of the common classes, whereas most other writers of his day were notably more upper-crust.

For me, this is the primary reason why I can’t accept the argument that Shakespeare’s works must have been written by the Earl of Somewhere-or-Other. Shakespeare wasn’t a literary writer. He was a populist writer. It’s not merely the fact that he wrote for the theater, it’s in the language he used. He didn’t write the way most other (aristocratic, noble, upper-crust) writers of his day did. He wrote extensively in the language of the groundlings. He understood their language, and understood it deeply enough to fully appreciate it. Whoever wrote Shakespeare lived a life which bred such familiarity.

This isn’t to say that Shakespeare didn’t also use the more literate, more elevated language of educated and aristocratic writers. But I consider it far more likely that a commoner who could read might expand their vocabulary and develop a refined poetic sensibility by reading the works of the major literary writers of their era, than that a member of the educated aristocratic elite would develop a deep familiarity with the conversational vocabulary of commoners.

Shakespeare’s work delved into both pools of the English language. Ergo, I consider it more likely that Shakespeare came from a common background, than that he was a front for an aristocrat or nobleman.

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