Shakespeare‟s Language

It is not as difficult as it seems.

• The English language contains over 400,000 different words, but your vocabulary is about 3000-9000 different words (12,000 if you‟re educated), and you get by on a daily basis with about 150 different words.

the King James Bible
contains 12,143 different English words

Homer author of the Iliad and the Odyssey

used 9,000 different words

• By contrast, William Shakespeare had a vocabulary of over 20,000 different words and invented over 1700 of the words and phrases that we still use today. • Shakespeare created more than 8.5 percent of his written vocabulary.

arouse champion countless gloomy gossip moon beam skim milk unreal zany

• Let‟s take a look at Old English - how many people think Shakespeare wrote …

Old English

Old English – the following passage is from the time of King Alfred or about 800 A.D.

• Faeder ure thu eart on heofonum, si thin nama gehalgod. Tobecume thin rice. Gewurthe thin willa on eorthan swa swa on heofonum.
• Do you think you know what it means?

Middle English – the same phrase is written as it would have appeared in the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (1320-1384)

• Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halwid be thi name; thi kyngdom cumme to; be thi wille don as in heuen and in erthe; gif to us this day ouer breed oure substaunce; and forgeue uo us oure dettis as we forgeue to oure dettours … • Does this one make a little more sense?

Modern English – here is the same passage as it appeared in 1611 or about the time of Shakespeare.

• Our father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread; and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation …
• So is Shakespeare’s language all that different?

• William Shakespeare did not write in Old English.

• William Shakespeare wrote in Modern English!

• A few tricks to understanding Shakespeare‟s writings include the following:

1. contractions not used today
• Examples:
– ta‟en

– ‟em them – o‟er over Why would Shakespeare want to omit syllables?

2. the omission of a syllable from the beginning or middle of a word

• Examples: „cause
because „gainst


3. -th or –st forms of verbs
• Examples:

go hast

4. use of archaic words
• Examples:
soothsayer accoutrements knave ay fain anon plague, pox, ague wherefore

yes gladly at once disease why

5. use of a contemporary word with a different meaning

• Examples:
still = always soft = slowly, gently mark = listen an = if fell = cruel, fierce, deadly to-night = last night

6. inversion
• For instance, he might write, “Went I to Bellarmine” instead of “I went to Bellarmine.” • Example: “Then dreams he of another‟s benefice.” • Translation: He dreams of another‟s benefice.

6. inversion
• I ate the sandwich. The sandwich I ate. The sandwich ate I. Ate I the sandwich. • I found I was running late. • Aren‟t you glad to be here?

7. omission of do, did, or does in negative declarative
• Examples: I do not like him.
 Him I not like.

I do not love you.
 I did not love you.  I loved you not. I love you not.

8. omission of do, did, or does in interrogatives
• Examples:
What did she say?  What say she?

Did he go there?
 Did she sleep here? Went he there?

Slept she here?

9. Use of thou, thee, thine, and thy – meaning you, you, your, and your. • Example: “ Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit, Wilt thou not Jule?” • Translation: You will fall backward when you have more wit, Will you not, Jule?

9. Use of thou, thee, thine, and thy – meaning you, you, your, and your.
Use thou, thee, thine, and thy when talking to inferiors. Use you and your when talking intimately.

10. Use of mine for my.
my book  my egg  mine book mine egg

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

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