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Influence of Shakespeare on Word-Formation

Updated on May 26, 2019
Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare
Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare

I- Introduction

Jovanovic notes: “There exists an unbreakable link between the studies of language and literature”. Accordingly, no study should be made into a language without delving into the intricacies of the literature of that particular language, which will help provide a framework for understanding its most characteristic phenomena. Thus, it is perfectly reasonable to say that between language and literature there exists a fundamentally reciprocal beneficial relationship at the most fundamental level through which each medium develops on the growth of the other. To illustrate, language on one hand serves as a medium of communication. As such, it is manifested in literature, where it is developed and manipulated to take on different forms and adapt to new circumstances, and eventually reaches actualization as that literature unfolds to comprehensively encompass wide ranges of themes and ideas. Because of these inevitable phenomena, as we lay out the history of linguistic systems across the years, many pre-eminent writers who laid the foundation of an unprecedented use of language in their literary works are seen to have ushered that particular language into a new era. Such were the circumstances that led to the development of a linguistic revolution with the many literary giants: Geoffrey Chaucer with his The Canterbury Tales, Virgil with his epic poems, and Homer with his Greek epics. But perhaps no literary work in the history of language has done more to eviscerate an existing language epidemic than has Shakespeare's 37 plays – based on his bewildering gift of ingenuity, and the sophistication of his verse – a cosmopolitan oeuvre that significantly brought up a practically dead English language. And such truly was the prevalent condition of the English language at that time, a time dominated by Latin and French, which conquered the top positions, while only low-class members spoke English. This unfortunate circumstance suggests that Shakespeare took the position of the laureate in his language, where he found English a dead language, and left it a prevalent one. Therefore, building on all these points, it becomes perfectly plausible to question how Shakespeare influenced English, or in other words: What methods and processes was he known to have used to create such a vast underpinning of word formation? Well, Shakespeare’s verbal talent outstripped the simple barrier of word formation used by his contemporaries, having contrived words with his unprecedented ability of intertwining them, culling them, editing them and adding his magical Shakespearean touch to them. In order to do this, Shakespeare resorted to derivation, compounding, conversion, and other minor forms.

II- Literature Review A- Jovanovic's paper

Generally speaking, there has not been a unanimous consensus on the influence of Shakespeare on English. Accordingly, there exists continuous contention between different sources on that particular topic. Thus, this literature review will aim to call to attention to these sources, primarily to shed light on their evaluations of the topic, and secondarily to show areas of contention between them. First and foremost, Jovanovic, a philologist in the university of Belgrade, wrote a commensurate paper on the same topic. That paper, The Significance of William Shakespeare for the Development of English Language, begins by asserting Shakespeare as a master of his craft, and a laureate of his language. By doing that, the paper grounds its position in the center of the controversy, which will later be challenged by other sources. After stating this, the paper goes on to elaborate on the historical linguistic context through which Shakespeare channeled his artistic medium. For instance, it talks about how the commercial and military expansion of the kingdom fulfilled the need for lexical growth manifested in the already-florescent intellectual interest at that time. According to Jovanovic, this need was fulfilled by borrowing words from different sources the Englishmen came into contact with during their growth. Thus, their language was rendered a more flexible and malleable entity. Moreover, in the lexical review, the paper makes its own possibly unsound parametrical estimation of the number of words Shakespeare contrived, around 20,000 words, as well as how this signified the genius which he brought to the table . Furthermore, in the same paragraph, it briefly talks about the established critiques of his work. For instance, the paper weighs out the well-grounded opinions of two scholars of opposing characteristic features. On one hand, O. Jespersen, a known idealist, praises Shakespeare’s unnerving boldness at breaking linguistic rules. But on the other hand, Alex Schmidt, a known pedant, refutes this commonly attributed genius, citing the bard’s spontaneity as destructive to his poetic verse. However, the source goes on to state, the latter opinion obviously ignores the fact that it was largely in part to not being bound in the fetters of any inherited grammatical structure that Shakespeare was able to further expand the application of his creative word-formation techniques. After finishing with the background review, Jovanovic goes on to listing the specific word-formation techniques that Shakespeare revolutionized with his works, including, but not limited to, derivation, back-formation, and conversion. After listing these techniques, Jovanovic concludes his paper by restating his original claim as well as by expounding different claims to his superiority given by his contemporaries such as Ben Johnson’s praise.

B- ELLO's article

Furthermore, Ello wrote an article, The English Language at Shakespeare’s time, which describes the linguistic historical context of Shakespeare. Correspondingly, it starts by asserting that the English language in the 10-15th centuries, despite being a respectable language, was underutilized relative to other languages such as French or Latin. To illustrate as the authors of the article did, most legal matters in 10-15th century Europe were conducted in French and Latin. Consequently, it states, English was considered to be a second-class language, such that only uneducated people spoke English, whereas aristocratic people spoke French. However, the article goes on to state, the state of affairs in English drastically changed in the 16th century (Ello). After a series of events that led to the rise of classical literature and language, the English language became more prominent and prevalent in academic contexts. Consequently, the demand for English-language writers and their translators increased, in converse to what resembled a sharp decline in the 10th– 15thcenturies. But the source also states that the blank slate of what used to be the English Language caused a drastic deficiency in its lexical repository. In more concrete terms, the English language lacked words used to describe a comprehensive array of ideas. Consequently, the source states, this led to the unfolding of a great array of scholarly genius, the most notable and eminent of them being Shakespeare, who contrived unprecedented morphological techniques, and as such ultimately proved himself to be a man of unbridled verbal extravagance. By asserting that last claim, Ello also puts itself in the middle of the controversy, pertaining to the same position that owes Shakespeare the position of a lexical master.

C- David Crystal's excerpt

Finally, David Crystal, a renowned Shakespeare scholar, wrote a book, Shakespeare’s words, which we will only be using an excerpt of, specifically chapter 7, concerning the language of Shakespeare. Despite being similar in title to the other sources, it does not list word-formation techniques neither does it talk much about historical context. Rather, it begins with an anecdote describing the meeting of minds that is the theatre and the audience, and how that is manifested in language, which absorbs the ideas idiosyncratically as they appeal to that particular person’s day and age. Subsequently, present-day audience members will have a difficult time understanding Elizabethan English, largely due to how unfamiliar its linguistic systems are. In fact, Shakespeare’s complex sentence structures and usage of idiosyncratic words lead many people to think they are reading Old or Middle English. Moreover, David Crystal concludes the chapter on a very controversial quote. Rather than having said that Shakespeare was the prime of a language influencer, Crystal made a bold assertion stating: “Those who assert that huge numbers of words in modern English come from Shakespeare are seriously mistaken”. Furthermore, to add, he refutes the idea of a linguistic legacy that spurred from Shakespeare’s works. By stating these claims, David Crystal challenges the idea of Shakespeare’s position as a laureate, citing the lack of definite evidence for the large sum of new words scholars usually attribute to him. Building on all these points above, it can be said that despite being a very contentious area of intellectual conversation, there is nevertheless a wide scholarly study on Shakespeare’s influence that is sufficient to make a sound opinion.

III- A- Body Paragraph 1

The lexical treasure that Shakespeare imbued to the English language best expressed itself through derivative word-formation techniques. That is, the attribution of adequate suffixation and prefixation to reach a creative effect with a word, namely a dramatic one in the case of Shakespeare. In addition to being Shakespeare’s most preferred Word formation technique, it is also noted that derivation was also the most extensively used technique in Early Modern English. However, that extensive use of that particular technique was only just a recent phenomenon at that time, as affixes were almost non-existent in the time leading up to Shakespeare. Rather, English pioneers who desired to write secular literature were enclosed in the narrow language of plain vernacular, like Chaucer in his ‘The Canterbury Tales'.

In the midst of all the controversy, perhaps one contribution of Shakespeare whose significance cannot be undermined by critics was suffixation. Accordingly, the particular technique forms a major part of Shakespeare’s morphological toolbox, through which he formed the nuts and bolts of his unrivaled word-formation. But what is suffixation? Suffixation, according to Nevalainen, is adding a suffix to the base of a word, usually with a change of the word class. Thus, when it is appended to a word, the grammatical function of that word consequently changes. That being said, following are the most notable of Shakespeare's indubitable construction:

Suffix

New Word Coined by Shakespeare

-able

Answerable, laughable, indistinguishable, unmatchable

-ful

Eventful, fretful, fitful

-ish

Dragonish (i.e. in the shape of a dragon)

-ive

Forgetive

-ous

Inauspicious,

-less

Dauntless

However, Shakespeare did not only utilize suffixes with this end in mind. Rather, he also used them to appropriate with his desired meter. For instance, Shakespeare once creates a new word – vasty– to fit the meter of the phrase: The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram. To further elaborate, vast here does not fit the meter, and thus Shakespeare used that word to create a new one, vasty, which incorporates an extra syllable.

Notable is that how between the words in the table above, not one is a noun. Accordingly, derived nouns of Shakespeare’s shaping are apparently very few, courtship being the most prominent one, whose first mention came in Henry VI part II.

Another method of word-formation that, despite being rarely used, had nevertheless a meaningful contribution to his lexical compendium was prefixation. Equally as tantamount as suffixation, prefixation was likewise prevalent among wordsmiths in Early Modern English. Conversely, as with suffixation, it was comparatively non-existent up till the years leading to the Early Modern English period. In fact, prefixes before EME were very different, and would be considered archaic today. However, when the need for lexical growth and expansion became acknowledged in the 16th century, scholars started borrowing from Old Latin or Old French, which in turn led to a rapid influx of newly-created prefixes. Now as for Shakespeare, his most common prefix was -en, which he used to masterfully refine a wide array of different verbs. For instance, among them, the most prominent was enthrone, which he used for the first time in Anthony and Cleopatra, line 5, Act III, Scene 6: “Cleopatra and himselfe in Chaires of Gold Were publikely enthron’d”.Furthermore, among other prefixed words first coined by Shakespeare include: submerge, unprizable, and premeditated. Thus, building on all these points, it can be inferred that, in spite of having shortcomings in quantity, Shakespeare’s prefixed words were distinct in the mere richness of their connotative attributes.



B- Body Paragraph II

Compounds, unlike other Shakespearean word-formation techniques, have had a long history before reaching Shakespeare. In fact, compounds were commonly used in many forms of linguistic expression, such as prose and poetry, primarily in order to achieve a somewhat particular economic benefit with word count, and secondarily in order to satisfy a metrical constraint. To illustrate in more concrete terms, compounds have the unique ability of telescoping a sentence in order to make it concise. Moreover, they can be implemented into different verses in poetry in order to satisfy a metrical constraint, such as the need for polysyllabic words and phrases. Despite being an already established field of linguistic construction, compounding words came into a whole new light at the time of Shakespeare. This was because Shakespeare was the first person to employ these compounds rather creatively, appropriating them to his context and altering their definitions to suit his needs of creative endeavor. To illustrate, this need for creative invention manifested itself in the dichotomy of word-formation techniques in the area of compounds. On one hand, Shakespeare scarcely created a new nominal compound, or any compound in that matter in an already established field. But on the other hand, Shakespeare contrived a brand-new creative compounding technique, the axioms of which being adverbial particle phrases, by means of adding the agentive suffix to the verb.

To begin with, Shakespeare’s most inventive compounding method was the creation of adverbial particle phrases. As such, he sealed the revolutionary signet on his artistic medium by being one of the few people who were acknowledged to have added an agentive suffix to a verb. By doing that, Shakespeare would create a concoction of derivation and compounding word formations, ultimately creating a creative effect as seen in the phrase the finder-out of the secret, or the goer back. Coincidentally, this could be seen as one of Shakespeare’s many lexical breakthroughs, through which his adverbial particle word-formation techniques inaugurated a series of new formations upon this pattern.

Shakespeare is one of the few great writers whose merit in initiating nominal compounds can scarcely be acknowledged. Accordingly, Shakespeare’s contribution to the nominal compound field can be seen as destitute of both quantity and quality at best, having barely contributed in expanding an already well-established field of compounds. Among the forms of these nominal compounds he was known to have used is the compound pattern in which both noun constituents were of equal value, such as king-cardinal and master-mistress. Moreover, he used nominal compounds in order to perform an economic summation of a phrase, such as shoulder-clapper, night-brawler, bed-presser, purpose-changer, and horse back-breaker. While this might seem like a myriad amount of words contrived for any writer, the reader should never forget that when an individual stands out so highly in the lexical world as Shakespeare does, it is only natural for him to have passed through thousands of words himself. In the end, the nominal compound field of Shakespeare proved to be transient in the face of a longer held autocracy by Shakespeare’s other word formation techniques.

C- Body Paragraph 3

Compounds, unlike other Shakespearean word-formation techniques, have had a long history before reaching Shakespeare. In fact, compounds were commonly used in many forms of linguistic expression, such as prose and poetry, primarily in order to achieve a somewhat particular economic benefit with word count, and secondarily in order to satisfy a metrical constraint. To illustrate in more concrete terms, compounds have the unique ability of telescoping a sentence in order to make it concise. Moreover, they can be implemented into different verses in poetry in order to satisfy a metrical constraint, such as the need for polysyllabic words and phrases. Despite being an already established field of linguistic construction, compounding words came into a whole new light at the time of Shakespeare. This was because Shakespeare was the first person to employ these compounds rather creatively, appropriating them to his context and altering their definitions to suit his needs of creative endeavor. To illustrate, this need for creative invention manifested itself in the dichotomy of word-formation techniques in the area of compounds. On one hand, Shakespeare scarcely created a new nominal compound, or any compound in that matter in an already established field. But on the other hand, Shakespeare contrived a brand-new creative compounding technique, the axioms of which being adverbial particle phrases, by means of adding the agentive suffix to the verb.

To begin with, Shakespeare’s most inventive compounding method was the creation of adverbial particle phrases. As such, he sealed the revolutionary signet on his artistic medium by being one of the few people who were acknowledged to have added an agentive suffix to a verb. By doing that, Shakespeare would create a concoction of derivation and compounding word formations, ultimately creating a creative effect as seen in the phrase the finder-out of the secret, or the goer back. Coincidentally, this could be seen as one of Shakespeare’s many lexical breakthroughs, through which his adverbial particle word-formation techniques inaugurated a series of new formations upon this pattern.

Shakespeare is one of the few great writers whose merit in initiating nominal compounds can scarcely be acknowledged. Accordingly, Shakespeare’s contribution to the nominal compound field can be seen as destitute of both quantity and quality at best, having barely contributed in expanding an already well-established field of compounds. Among the forms of these nominal compounds he was known to have used is the compound pattern in which both noun constituents were of equal value, such as king-cardinal and master-mistress. Moreover, he used nominal compounds in order to perform an economic summation of a phrase, such as shoulder-clapper, night-brawler, bed-presser, purpose-changer, and horse back-breaker. While this might seem like a myriad amount of words contrived for any writer, the reader should never forget that when an individual stands out so highly in the lexical world as Shakespeare does, it is only natural for him to have passed through thousands of words himself. In the end, the nominal compound field of Shakespeare proved to be transient in the face of a longer held autocracy by Shakespeare’s other word formation techniques.

IV- Conclusion

Not much more can be said to portray Shakespeare’s representation as an ideal language influencer. However, it can be claimed that even his arch rival in writing, Ben Jonson, had nothing but praise for the bard while reading his works. Judging from that claim, and from the near comprehensive delineation of his word-formation techniques covered in this paper, it is inferred that Jovanovic’s testimony for the grandiosity of Shakespeare as an indulger in extravagant lexical pursuits was a more fitting claim for the evidence provided. As such, David Crystal’s claim that Shakespeare contrived as many words as he is usually claimed to have done, despite being veracious, rather ignores an indispensable fact: The transience of the English language with respect to the longer-lived temporal domination of the Franko-Roman languages at that time. With this in mind, it is now plausible to make a sound conclusion. Having refuted David Crystal’s idea, and having acclaimed the claim of a Shakespeare proponent, it is concluded that Shakespeare’s influence stretched farther than maybe all language influencers, having rooted in his plays what is known to be an unprecedented linguistic legacy. After concluding, it is time to tackle an intriguing question that Shakespearean scholars often ask: What is the purpose of studying Shakespeare in our day? Well, according to different scholars, and to the applicability of this study to our intellectual conversation of linguistic history, understanding Shakespeare is important as his themes still resonate with us today. Moreover, it is vital to understand Shakespeare right after his 400th anniversary, in a day where classic literature is on the brink of extinction.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Nicolas Ladkani

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