Shakespeare and the English Language

If a time machine were available to take you back to Shakespeare’s time, and you jumped aboard, would you be able to understand the language being spoken?

It was a period of “a large intake of loanwords from the Romance languages of Europe…, which required a different kind of pronunciation”—and of a great flood of Latinate words from scientific, legal, and medical discourse. “Latin loanwords in Old and Middle English are a mere trickle,” writes Charles Barber in The English Language, “but in Early Modern English,” Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, “the trickle becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge.”

Shakespeare’s language revels in such borrowing, and coining, of words, while often preserving the pronunciation and the syntax, of earlier forms of English from all over the UK. All other arguments for reading and listening to Shakespeare aside—and they are too numerous—the richness of the language may be the most robust for centuries to come. As long as there is something called English—though a thousand years hence, our version may sound as alien as the language of Beowulf does today—Shakespeare will still represent some of the wittiest, most adventurous expressions of the most fertile and creative moment in the language’s history.

To hear some Shakespeare please go to OPEN CULTURE.

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