Writing for The Boston Globe, NYU doctoral candidate Rachael Scarborough King reported on recent studies that cast doubt on the commonly held assumption that William Shakespeare invented many of the words we use today.
It's a common claim of English classes and Internet listicles alike: William Shakespeare, English literature’s most canonical author, invented hundreds if not thousands of the words in our language. Without his plays and poems, we would not know how to swagger, grovel, or gossip, nor could we speak of our employers or our eyeballs—all, supposedly, Shakespearean coinages. From ten-dollar-words like quarrelsome and sanctimonious to everyday terms such as hint and critic, the bard is widely credited with adding immeasurably to our linguistic variety.
But a recent wave of scholarship—driven by computerized quantitative analysis and digital databases that enable searching of thousands of texts at once—is revealing that some of this may be more hype than reality. Shakespeare experts are finding that his vocabulary might not have been so different from that of other writers for the Renaissance stage. The new evidence shows that Shakespeare may have been more a product of his time than the sui generis genius of our cultural mythology.
King goes on to detail the studies, ultimately concluding that a diminution in Shakespeare's reputation as a word smith might actually result in a more authentic response to his work from students and teachers.
If this research reveals that Shakespeare was not so different from his fellow dramatists in quantitative terms, it could actually reinforce his qualitative exceptionality. As Russ McDonald, professor of English literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, wrote in an e-mail, “Knowing that Shakespeare did not invent as many words as we once thought or that his vocabulary was not much different from those of his fellow writers should in no way diminish our admiration for his artistry. Theatrical and literary history attests to his unparalleled use of the same materials as everybody else.”
One effect of digital research in the humanities, it seems, could be to reframe the debate over what makes writers such as Shakespeare so original. By dissolving the myth that his great contribution was to invent English words out of thin air, we are left with a clearer focus on qualities of his work that are less reducible to numbers: namely, the beauty of his writing and the richness of his cultural milieu.
Read King's full piece here. (And for teachers looking for resources in teaching Shakespeare, check out the vocabulary lists in the right-hand column.)
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