english language

How English Language Is Shakespeare’s Language

William Shakespeare, a famous writer from the Elizabethan era, is thought to be the best playwright and poet in English. His writings from hundreds of years ago still affect how we talk and write today. People call him the “Father of Modern English.”

This blog looks at how Shakespeare changed the English language in different ways.

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  1. Standardisation of the English language
  2. Before Shakespeare, English grammar and the rules of the English language were not fixed. But once Shakespeare’s plays became popular, they helped contribute to the standardisation of the English language.

    From coining neologisms to minting idioms his contributions to the English language have been immeasurable. By creating new words and tropes, as well as building relationships between writers and patrons, Shakespeare greatly influenced contemporary literature.

    His most significant contribution was of words and phrases that are still used in modern English. Shakespeare invented about 1700-3000 words. Some of the words created by him; for instance, “assassination,” “lonely,” “radiance,” and “lacklustre” are a few examples.

  3. Invented words
  4. Shakespeare was able to create words in multiple ways. It included changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and coming up with completely new words. He is also known for borrowing from classical literature and foreign languages.

    Shakespeare transformed idioms and expressions. He invented phrases in his plays that we commonly use today. Examples of these include phrases like “breaking the ice,” “heart of gold,” and “wild-goose chase.”

    In the 1570s, the phrase “to court” meant to woo. From this word Shakespeare created the word courtship which he used in The Merchant of Venice. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, he introduced the word zany, derived from the Latin term “zani” which came from “Zanni,” a derivative of the Italian name, Giovanni. It means idiosyncratic and amusingly unconventional.

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  5. Used variations
  6. Shakespeare implemented linguistic variations using innovative sentence structures, word substitutions, and word combinations to express meanings. Shakespeare’s use of metaphorical language and iambic pentameter style of writing contributed significantly to early modern English.

    One way he did this was with ‘what say you’ and ‘what do you say.’ One has an extra syllable, but both have the same meaning. Another device that he used was making contractions. Ne’er instead of never, o’er instead of over, are examples of such contractions.

    The first thing that strikes one about Shakespeare’s English is that he used many words to mean something else than what they mean to us today. For example, the word ‘fantastical’ in Shakespeare’s plays meant something more along the lines of ‘imagined’. This word has positive connotations today, and could not be used to describe a murder, unlike ‘…My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical…’ (1.3.138, ‘Macbeth’.)

  7. Use of metaphors
  8. Several clichés that are used daily by English speakers were invented in Shakespeare’s writings. Expressions such as “dead as a doornail” (Henry IV, Part II) or “something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth), ‘It’s Greek to me’ can all be accredited to Shakespeare. Much of common English speech can be traced back to idioms used in Shakespeare’s writing.

    Shakespeare was a master of metaphors, similes, and personification. He used vivid language to convey complex ideas and emotions. Phrases like “all the world’s a stage” from “As You Like It”, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and “The world is my oyster,” remain iconic examples of his use of figurative language.

  9. Use of Blank verse
  10. Blank verse is a form of poetry that is unrhymed and written in a specific style, particularly iambic pentameter style. In his writings, his characters often switch between prose and blank verse depending on their emotional states or social positions. For example, in “Much Ado About Nothing”, the characters converse in prose during light-hearted banter but switch to blank verse for grand declarations of love or during dramatic plot developments.

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  11. Inverted Word order
  12. Shakespeare often used inverted word order to create emphasis or to convey a particular mood or tone. For eg., “To be or not to be, that is the question,”. Here the subject and verb are inverted for rhetorical effect. Writers use this form to add a dramatic effect to their writing.

  13. Compound words
  14. By adding original French prefixes ‘-en’ and ‘-em’ to English words, Shakespeare coined words such as: enact, endeared, enchased, embattle etc. and by adding English prefixes un to French words he made such new words as unless, unvalued, unchanged etc.

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  15. Use of anastrophe
  16. Using an unusual word arrangement to highlight specific words or themes was a common practice in Shakespeare’s works. The renowned quote, “To sleep, perhaps to dream” from Hamlet showcases this departure from typical English sentence structure.

    Shakespeare’s impact reaches modern authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and J.K. Rowling. He brought in innovative storytelling techniques, like soliloquies, dramatic irony, and asides, which are now prevalent in plays, movies, and books. Also, some phrases we still say today were first written by Shakespeare.

    • ‘Green-eyed Monster’ (Othello)
    • ‘For goodness’ sake’ (Henry VIII)
    • ‘In a pickle (The Tempest)
    • ‘Good riddance’ (Troilus and Cressida)
    • ‘Heart of gold’ (Henry V)
    • ‘Pure as the driven snow’ (Hamlet)
    • ‘Forever and a day’ (As you like it)
    • ‘It’s Greek to me’ (Julius Caesar)
    • ‘You’ve got to be cruel to be kind’ (Hamlet)
    • ‘Break the ice’ (The Taming of the Shrew)

Understanding Shakespeare’s language provides insights into the evolution of English. Knowing his literary genius and linguistic prowess is crucial to appreciating why and how the English language continues to be the language of Shakespeare.

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