How Shakespeare Changed the English Language

Posted on April 12, 2016 · Posted in Linguistics

It’s safe to say that William Shakespeare is one of the most headache-inducing playwrights of all time. His plays – and his language – are the source of much discontent for many school and college students around the world, and yet it’s this seemingly incoherent jumble of Middle English, foreign phrases, and multiple dialects that has been instrumental in creating the English language as we know it today.

Standardization of the English Language

Perhaps one of the most ironic – and humorous – facts about William Shakespeare was that, despite being the most prolific writer of his time, he was unable to sign his name the same way twice. And we’re not just talking about different styles of signature here – we’re talking spellings. For a man who earned his living writing plays, he was remarkably lax about spelling, although this was entirely normal at the time.

Standardization as we know it today simply didn’t exist. If we look back a little further to Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, one of the first aspects that jumps out is that the same word can be spelled differently throughout the work, which is funny considering that Chaucer’s English was, at the time, considered to be the most standardized version of the language. So what changed with Shakespeare?

Shakespeare’s original works probably weren’t much more standardized than Chaucer’s. However, Shakespeare was arguably the first prominent playwright to come along after the printing press. Although mass production of literature still hadn’t caught on during Shakespeare’s lifetime, the 1623 publication of the First Folio meant that the language became standardized practically overnight.

Modern Words & Phrases

Experts claim that Shakespeare introduced a whopping 1700 new words and phrases into the English language through his plays and poetry. ‘Baseless’, ‘barefaced’, ‘dwindle’, and ‘watchdog’, for example; ‘fair play’, ‘it’s Greek to me’, and ‘break the ice’ – these are all words and phrases that can be traced back to Shakespeare’s works. Did Shakespeare really ‘invent’ them, though?

It can, of course, be argued that Shakespeare didn’t really create these words. Instead, he simply had the skills and tools that would have been required at the time to put these words down on paper for an English-speaking audience. These are words that he may have heard spoken a million times in his local community, or words that he’d borrowed from classical literature or foreign languages.

However, whether or not Shakespeare ‘invented’ these words is largely irrelevant when discussing how he changed the English language. Regardless of where these words came from, it was Shakespeare’s ability to share them with a large section of the population, through performances of his plays, that undoubtedly played a significant role in their widespread incorporation into the English language.

Poetry & Style

William Shakespeare not only changed the fundamentals of the English language, but also the style in which it was written. The style of blank verse is often attributed to Shakespeare. It shouldn’t be, really. That honor belongs to Henry Howard, who is believed to have been influenced by Italian poetry. Shakespeare did, however, challenge the existing ‘rules’ of blank verse, and essentially made it his own.

Shakespeare pushed the boundaries of blank verse beyond where Marlowe had taken them previously (of course, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, you could say that Marlowe continued to develop blank verse under Shakespeare’s name… but let’s not get into that right now). Shakespeare would split lines between characters and leave lines unfinished – a style that can be traced back as far as Homer.

We know that Shakespeare had a huge influence over the progression and evolution of the English language. What we don’t know, however, is how language would have progressed without the works of Shakespeare. Would language still be as ‘zany’ (Love’s Labour’s Lost), as ‘majestic’ (Julius Caesar) or as ‘arousing’ (King Henry VI) as it is today without the bard’s influence? It seems we’ll never know.