Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Shakespeare’s Legacy: Queer Words and Timeless Expressions?

In my last article on the development of English, I signed off with a piece about William Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England and inadvertently set about standardising our language. As well as the obvious technical aspects of his achievements, however, there is also the cultural side to consider.

In fact, what Caxton did was to actually establish his own local East Midlands dialect of the tongue as the norm. By putting, for example, the word ‘home’ into print, instead of one of the other variant spellings (and pronunciations), such as ‘hame’, he relegated all other variants to the dustbin of history, and unwittingly subjected them to a good deal of subsequent ridicule, too. Now, the English middle-classes are quite fond of lampooning those with non-standard accents and quaint country dialects: but few of them probably know that what they perceive as the imperial standard was once itself as provincial as Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.

However, no matter: in 1592 the writer Thomas Nashe paid tribute to such attempts for having “cleansed our language from barbarism and made the vulgar sort here in London aspire to a richer purity of speech”. Even today the language of the common Londoner is still enough to make ‘educated’ speakers wince, and long may it stay that way (OK, I admit I’m a Londoner, and proud of my rather unique way of pronouncing ‘butter’ as ‘bu’er’).

Around the same time there was another Midlands fellow in London trying to make a name for himself, and this chap also shared with Caxton another common (but not vulgar) feature, the same forename; William. This guy was, of course, William Shakespeare, and together with his name-sake they are probably responsible for much of the current state of the modern language.

In fact, Shakespeare’s impact on the English language can probably be best seen in three dimensions: grammar, vocabulary and idioms. It’s these aspects that I would like to hold up for your attention this month, and hopefully make you realise just how much of a debt our modern tongue owes to this wise-cracker from the West Midlands.

Firstly, there’s the fact that English grammar in the 16th century was quite fluid, allowing poets and writers to exploit its ambiguities to great effect. This meant that, as word order had not yet established itself as one of the prime indicators of meaning, adjectives and verbs could be interpreted as nouns, and vice versa. For instance, the line "let not my an Idoll show" could lead us to believe that ‘doll’ is a noun and ‘show’ a verb. There is, however, a lurking suspicion that ‘show’ is a noun, and ‘Idoll’ an adjective, which would lead us to a very different interpretation.

Another indicator of the changes that have happened in English since then can be found in Macbeth, where the question “Goes the King hence today?” almost requires translation. Modern English would demand the word ‘do’ for such questions, and in this particular instance the aspect would be continuous rather than simple: “Is the King leaving today?”. The same could be said for Polonius’ question “What do you read, my Lord?”. Most of us would be tempted to answer something along the lines of “Well, I usually read, books, magazines, newspapers, etc”, whereas the original question was more to do with the ‘here and now’, and in current times would be better put as “What are you reading, my Lord?”.

“And so what?” you might boldly ask. Well, what the above serves to indicate is that language is not ‘written in tablets of stone’ (forgive the slight pun), as many like to believe, but is fluid, everchanging, and in constant development from one stage to another. Therefore the idea of a ‘standard’ English language, which is constant and somehow superior to others, is hard to sustain.

Next there’s Shakespeare’s wide vocabulary to consider. He is often credited with having coined words such as ‘accommodation’ and ‘assassination’, amongst others, and was also the first to put into print many other newly sprung words of his time: ‘demonstrate’, ‘dire’ and ‘horrid’ are just three examples. Many other words he also breathed life into, but the passage of time has led to their being forgotten and left in disuse.

Perhaps more importantly, many historians believe he used his West Midlands roots and dialect as a source for many new colourful words. Such words as ‘ballow’ (cudgel), ‘gallow’ (to frighten), and ‘geck’ (idiot) can be found in his works, and they were certainly not part of standard English at that time nor now. Unfortunately these localisms did not catch on - maybe the sophisticated Londoners of the time were swift to recognise their simple country origins, and left them on the page for the linguistic historians to mull over.

Finally, we come to the fact that many of our modern expressions and idioms came to us through the pen of Shakespeare himself. Whether he actually invented them or not is not clear, but it’s probably doubtful. However, Bernard Levin (no small writer himself) summarised a good deal of Shakespeare’s achievements when he stated that:

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘it’s all Greek to me’, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you recall your salad days, or act more in sorrow than in anger, you’re quoting Shakespeare. If you have ever refused to budge an inch, have played fast and loose, have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, then you’re also quoting Shakespeare. And if you’ve ever slept not a wink, stood on ceremony, had short shrift or cold comfort, or even had too much of a good thing, if you’ve seen better days, lived in a fool’s paradise - why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as luck would have it) again quoting Shakespeare.”

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