Shakespeare’s Language It is not as difficult as it seems.
Language Change Languages do not just happen – they are the result of many of hundreds and even thousands of years of development. The English as we know it is relatively new and is in a constant state of change. Every day hundreds of new words enter the language and many are dropped. In addition, the English language is spoken in many dialects around the world.
The English language contains about 300,000 words, but your vocabulary is about 3000 and you get by on a daily basis with about 150. • By contrast, William Shakespeare had a vocabulary of 15,000 words and invented many of the words and phrases that we still use today. • Let’s take a look at Old English - how many people think Shakespeare wrote …
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?
Learning to read Shakespeare is a bit like learning a foreign language, but it is well worth the effort. • Here are a few tricks to understanding Shakespeare – this will help you impress the ladies as well !
1. Thou, thee and thy –These mean you, and your, respectively. These words dropped out of our language a couple centuries ago, but Shakespeare uses them. The verb that is used with “thou” changes as well. • 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?
2.Inversion – Sometimes Shakespeare will invert the verb and the subject. • 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.
3. Diction – There are three problems with Shakespeare’s word choice. • First - he uses words that no longer exist in the English we speak. • Second - he uses words that are in our language, but now have a different meaning to us. • Third – he uses words that are in our language, but we simply don’t know what these words mean – you should look them up.
Some translations to help you … still = always soft = slowly, gently mark = listen an = if fell = cruel, fierce, deadly to-night = last night perforce = we must, you must kind = true to one’s nature ay = yes fain = gladly marry = swear word anon = at once plague, pox, ague = disease wherefore= why THESE ARE JUST A FEW OF THE DIFFICULT WORDS …
4. Contractions – for purposes of rhythm Shakespeare uses contractions to cut out syllables. • Examples: • o’ = on • th’ = the • i’ = in • ‘t – it • ta’en = taken • ‘em = them • ‘a = he (often) • o’er = over
Copy these lines down and translate them on a separate piece of paper. • For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night. • Tickling a parson’s nose as a’ lies asleep. • O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? • Do not swear at all/ or, if thou wilt, swear by thy gracious self … • A plague a both your houses. • Tybalt, liest thou there in thy bloody sheet?