Shakespeare’s mythic vocabulary – and his invisible grammar

Universities in the UK are under pressure to demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their research. In many ways, this is fair enough: public taxes account for the vast majority of UK University income, so it is reasonable for the public to expect academics to attempt to communicate with them about their work.

University press offices have become more pro-active in seeking out stories to present to the media as a way of raising the profile of institutions. Recently, the Strathclyde press office contacted me after they read one of my papers on Strathclyde’s internal research database: they wanted to do a press release to see if any outlets would follow-up on the story.

The paper they’d read was a survey article I’d written for an Open University course reader. My article reported recent papers by Hugh Craig and Ward Elliott & Robert Valenza, which demolish some common myths about Shakespeare’s vocabulary (its size and originality – and see Holger Syme on this too) – and went on to argue that Shakespeare’s originality might lie in his grammar, rather than in the words he does not make up.

Indeed they did want to pick up on the story, though I’d have preferred the article to have been a bit clearer, and not to have had a headline that was linguistic nonsense. The Huffington Post did a bit better.

One particularly galling aspect of the stories: the articles failed to attribute the work on Shakespeare’s vocabulary to Craig or Elliott and Valenza, so it might have looked as though I was taking credit for other people’s work

Looking back, I don’t think I explained my ideas very well either to Strathclyde’s press office, or to the Daily Telegraph when they rang – hence the rather confused reports. But I was extremely careful to attribute the work to those who had done it – even to the point of sending my original text to the journalist I talked to, and pointing him to the relevant footnote. I did not expect a news story to contain full academic references of course – but a clearly written story could easily have mentioned the originators of the work.

A minor episode, but it also made me think that there is a fundamental problem with trying to explain complex linguistic issues in the daily press – even if you use Newcastle United’s greatest goalscorers to illustrate the statistics. They want a clear story: you want to get the nuances across. Luckily, this blog allows me to make the full text of my article available (click through twice for a pdf of my article):

Shakespeare and the English Language


Jonathan Hope, Strathclyde University, Glasgow, February 2012

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One Comment

  1. Martin Mueller
    Posted March 14, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    The idea that Shakespeare was a man of many words may be related to the idea that he was a man of many curses, which in turn derives from Hal’s theatrical and vicious attack on Falstaff as

    that trunk of humours,
    that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen
    parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack,
    that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted
    Manningtree ox with the pudding in his belly,
    that reverend vice, that grey iniquity, that
    father ruffian, that vanity in years?
    (1Henry IV 454ff)

    A famous passage, like the passage about the laughter of the gods in the Iliad, and equally the source of false generalization. The gods do not laugh a lot in Homer, and passages like the above are quite rare in Shakespeare. Much more typical of his way with words is Perdita’s disillusionment

    this dream of mine, —
    Being now awake, I’ll queen it no inch farther,
    But milk my ewes and weep.

    No special words, except for the repurposing of ‘queen’ into a verb and the powerful dissonance of majestic ‘queen’ and lowly ‘inch’. If there is anything to Arnold’s ‘touchstones’, this is a touchstone moment, and it is built from the simplest words in the language.

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