Marketers, writers, language geeks, lend us your ears. OK, well actually just your eyes will do.
Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the death of a man who is widely regarded as the greatest writer the English language has ever known. Throughout his 26-year career he penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets, many of which are still widely read, taught, and performed around the world. We’re talking, of course, about the amazing playwright, dramatist, and poet, William Shakespeare.
While his career may have been cut short — he died on April 23, 1616 from a fever he contracted following a “merry meeting” where he “drank too hard” — Shakespeare made a lasting impact on the world’s theater and literature, not to mention the English language itself. And it’s actually that last point, his contributions to the English language, that we’d like to focus in on in this post. Four hundred years on, it’s time to show a little reverence for a man who too many of us probably take for granted.
All told, Shakespeare published 884,647 words throughout his illustrious career. While that doesn’t make him the most prolific of writers in terms of sheer volume (his work roughly equate to the length of just five Stephen King novels, while King himself has written 57) it’s a good reminder that quality almost always trumps quantity. Plus, the influence of his work on modern language is unparalleled.
That’s partially because during the 16th and 17th centuries, when Shakespeare was hard at work, English was still a bit of a rogue language. The vocabulary being used was continuously evolving and there weren’t many rules in place to standardize things. Throughout his career, Shakespeare made considerable contributions on both of these fronts.
A rich vocabulary, a unique way with words
Shakespeare is well known for having a vast vocabulary. At a time when English country laborers were said to know just 3000 words on average, while an educated English person of the day would have used an average of 3,000 to 4,000 words in regular conversation, Shakespeare was light years ahead. In fact, he used as many as 15,000 different words across all of his published works. As such, he introduced many new words into daily life.
According to shakespeare-online.com, many of those words he created by “changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.” Among the approximately 2,000 words he’s believed to have created include:
For a fun, quick overview of some other examples of words Shakespeare introduced into the English language, check out this short video:
The original grammar guru
Despite all of the contributions Shakespeare made to the English language by giving us great new words with which to express ourselves, some academics argue that his “real genius lay in the unique way he used grammar to construct sentences, adding a poetic element to English and setting him apart from all other writers of the time.”
Specifically, those academics call out the way Shakespeare structured his sentences and his use of adjectives to describe inanimate objects. They’re quick to point out that “Much of the grammar he chooses now seems old fashioned, but it lends poetry to commonplace words and significantly while his spelling is often updated, his grammar is not.”
To see or not to see
We hope this post has helped cast a light on a literary giant, so that you can clearly see what a profound impact he’s had on the words we use today and the way that we use them. Maybe you haven’t been inspired to go pick up a copy of Othello or a Midsummer Night’s Dream, but at least appreciate just how relevant Shakespeare still is to our lives today, four centuries after his death.