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Friday, January 8, 2016

Shakespeare's contributions to English

It's the beginning of a year-long party to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, so get ready for ... a lot of hooey about Shakespeare's contribution to the English language. All those words he invented!! I've written about this before, but there will no doubt be a veritable onslaught of claptrap in the next twelve months. 

Already The Globe and Mail  has published this nonsense from British PM David Cameron (which I suspect has been picked up by many newspapers):
"Shakespeare played a critical role in shaping modern English and helping to make it the world’s language"
I'm really not sure how Shakespeare helped to make English the world's language. Geopolitics did that. 
The first major dictionary compiled by Samuel Johnson drew on Shakespeare more than any other writer; 3,000 new words and phrases all first appeared in Shakespeare’s plays."
Well, at latest count the OED lists 1620 words whose first attestation is from Shakespeare, but hey, there's not that much difference between 3,000 and ... about half that many.  Many of those words are obscure or archaic, or in entries that are yet to be revised, and lexicographers will no doubt find earlier attestations than Shakespeare for most of them.
"Words such as dishearten, divest, addiction, motionless, leapfrog – and phrases such as “once more unto the breach,” “band of brothers,” “heart of gold” – have all passed into our language with no need to reference their original context."
Too bad that of these examples, the following all appeared before Shakespeare:
  • dishearten
  • divest
  • addiction
  • motionless
  • heart of gold 
and it's unlikely he invented leapfrog.
"He also pioneered innovative use of grammatical form and structure – including verse without rhymes, superlatives and the connecting of existing words to make new words, such as bloodstained – while the pre-eminence of his plays did much to standardize spelling and grammar."
We'll just hop over the fact that verse without rhymes is not "grammatical form and structure", and skip straight to...

Superlatives? Shakespeare pioneered superlatives? That would be news to English speakers who have been using "-est" since Anglo-Saxon times and "most x" since Middle English times, not to mention the occasional "most -est" double superlative. And English speakers have merrily been  "connecting existing words to make new words", a process otherwise called compounding, since Anglo-Saxon times.  

I don't want to be the party pooper at Shakespeare's celebrations. Many catchphrases indeed have their origin in his plays. But actual current, frequently used words? Not so much, that we can be sure of. And the ones that you often see attributed to him turn out,  when one does a very little research, not to be his coinages.

Shakespeare was a great writer, and there are many other aspects of his work that are worth celebrating. We do him a disservice by instead repeating these clich├ęd falsehoods.

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  1. Not his 400th birthday, but the 400th anniversary of his death.

  2. Additionally, I'd say that the French had far more influence on the English language we speak today. But, no one wants to celebrate that. Yet, as for one single person's contribution to the English language, you gotta hand it to the Bard. Even if the OED tags him at 1,620, that's still amazing. Besides, we can all use an excuse to party, right?

  3. The point is, though, that he probably didn't "invent" those 1620 either. You have to read my other post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/08/mythbusting-sorry-no-shakespeare-did.html

  4. Good post, Katherine. I think you should contact the Globe to offer an op ed piece.

  5. A good friend shares your blogs with me. They are FAB! So I just decided to sign up. _M

    1. that's great, Mary, I hope you continue to enjoy them.


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.