Shakespeare’s Contribution to English Language

Shakespeare’s Contribution to the English Language

 A complete history of the Making of  English would therefore include the name of the Maker                                                           – A.C. Bradley                                                         

A language, no doubt, make literature, but literature, too, goes to supplement and contribute to the growth of a language. Different forces work to make and develop a language. Of these forces must be mentioned some individual literary men or even literary work, which may have an important bearing on the growth of a language. Any authentic and complete history of the making English, therefore, needs to include the names of some makers whose literary work has played an important role in the growth of the language. In this respect, English is indebted to Shakespeare more than to anyone else.

Shakespeare, as a dramatist, had to satisfy a mixed audience among whom there were refined aristocrats, middle-class gentry, noblemen with intellectual ability, and the day workers with the rusticity of manners. Hence, he picked up words from nearly all cross-sections of society and used these in his dialogue. Jespersen has assessed words Shakespeare’s richness of vocabulary by counting the numbers of words he has used in his dramas: it exceeds 20,000. Shakespeare is an all-encompassing vocabulary with many more words than was imaginable by any other dramatist of his own time. In Julius Caesar, the two distinct styles of speech of Brutus and Mark Antony in the forum scene is an example of Shakespeare’s mastery in using the language in as many ways as possible.

There is another aspect in Shakespeare’s use of English- his conscious application of conversational mode in his dialogue. Moreover, Shakespeare uses the language in all possible ways by twisting it, rearranging it, compressing it to a minimum, and impregnating it with maximum connotation. In doing so he has forsaken some of the linguistic inhibitions and used the language in the ‘ungrammatic’, ‘unusual ways which have other scholarly, contemporary dramatists simply could not afford to do. But Shakespeare, ‘the jack of al trades’ with his ‘small Latin and less Greek’ (according to Robert Greene) explored to immense power and possibility of the English language as no one else before or after him could do. Shakespeare’s characters spoke in the language of metaphor:

(I) In the expression ‘the hatch and brood of time’ ( I Henry IV) the picture of a bird hatching the eggs and giving birth to birdlings, enables one to visualize the uncertain future possibility of fortune.

(II) ‘Devouring time’ (Sonnet 19) compares time to a devouring monster destroying all beauties.

Shakespeare has enriched the language with an innumerable unusual phrase, which is used down to the present time by writers are ready-made jewelry to embellish the language with such as:

(i) ‘Sound and Fury’ (Macbeth),   

(ii) ‘Infinite variety’ ( Antony and Cleopatra)

(iii) ‘Green-eyed monster’ (Othello)  

(iv) ‘Golden round’ (Macbeth)

Shakespeare has used many words that were newly introduced in his time like ‘courtship’, ‘dwindle’, ‘eventual’, ‘excellence’ etc.

In his use of language, we observed a few unusual and bold features:

(a) He did not hesitate to put a word not in its proper place in the sentence, for the sake of colloquial fluency: auxiliary verbs in negative and interrogative sentences were frequently avoided by him, instead he used the inversion of word order, as in such cases: ‘I know thee not, old man (Henry IV) 

(b) Changing of grammatical word order is observed: ‘What money is in my pursue?’ (Henry IV) [Instead of ‘How much money is there is my pursue?’]

(c) Double negatives are frequently used by him much against the modern grammatical rule, though in old and middle English double negatives were very common: ‘No squire in debt, nor no poor knight’ (king lear)

(d) Mere repetition of words is a steady source of climatic effect in Shakespeare, such as:

(i) ‘kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill’.(King Lear)

(ii) ‘Never, never, never, never, never.’ (King Lear)

(iii) ‘Villainy, villainy, villainy (Othello)

(e) In Shakespeare’s unusual syntax, unusual compound words occupies an important place. In such Compounds, words are used with their usual parts of speech changed:

(i) Adjectives used as adverbs in such compounds words, as:  shallow-changing woman (Richard III), broad-spreading leave (Richard II)

(ii)Two adjectives are joined together much against the grammatical rule: Happy-valiant (Macbeth)

(iii) Nouns are used adjectives: ‘sword and buckler Prince of Wales’ ( I Henry IV)

(iv) Adjectives are used as verbs: ‘Should safe my going’ (Antony and Cleopatra)

(v) Adjectives are used as nouns: ‘Golden round’ (Macbeth)

Without the knowledge of all these, a part of Shakespeare’s texts may remain untested, no doubt, but Shakespeare’s appeal transcends the barrier of ages because he could catch the life of the conversation of his time through his bold handling of the language as discussed above.


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