William Shakespeare, the illustrious playwright and poet, is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language. Born in the 16th century in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Shakespeare’s works have had a profound impact on literature, theater, and even the English language itself. With the passage of time, many people wonder about the language that Shakespeare spoke and how different it was from the English we know today.
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Shakespeare’s English: Early Modern English
The language spoken by Shakespeare was Early Modern English, the predecessor of the Modern English we speak today. Early Modern English was spoken in England and Scotland between approximately 1470 and 1700. It evolved from Middle English, which in turn stemmed from Old English. Early Modern English is characterized by distinct differences in vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and spelling as compared to Modern English.
While speakers of Modern English can understand the basic structure and storyline of Shakespeare’s works, there might be some difficulty in fully comprehending the language he used. This is because Early Modern English is an older version, and some words have fallen out of use, while the meanings of others have changed over time.
Noteworthy Features of Early Modern English
When examining Shakespeare’s works, there are certain language features that stand out, which include:
1. Vocabulary: Some words used by Shakespeare have become archaic or obsolete, leading to confusion or misinterpretation for present-day readers. Additionally, Shakespeare is known for his vast vocabulary and his penchant for coining new words and phrases, which may be unfamiliar to modern readers.
2. Grammar: Early Modern English used different grammatical rules compared to Modern English. For instance, Shakespeare often employed word order variations and used the second person pronoun “thou” for informal communication, while “you” was employed for formal situations. Early Modern English often applied these distinctions within the context of social status or relationships.
3. Spelling: Spelling in Early Modern English was variable and often inconsistent compared to the standardized spelling we use today. Elizabethan spelling could be characterized as phonetic, where spelling was based on how words sounded, as opposed to conforming to a predetermined set of rules.
4. Pronunciation: Pronunciation differed significantly between Early Modern English and Modern English. Vowels, in particular, were pronounced distinctly, with the so-called “Great Vowel Shift” leading to significant changes in vowel sounds during the 15th to 17th centuries.
Shakespeare’s Influence on Modern English
While there are differences in Early Modern English and Modern English, it is important to note that Shakespeare’s works influenced the transition and development of the English language. His extensive vocabulary, coinage of new phrases, and the overall popularity of his plays contributed to reshaping the language. Many words and expressions coined by Shakespeare are still in use today, reflecting his enduring impact on the English language and world literature.
In conclusion, although Shakespeare spoke Early Modern English and there are distinctions from Modern English which can make reading his works challenging, studying and appreciating his works are not impossible tasks. The beauty of Shakespeare’s writing transcends time, highlighting the universality of his themes, while simultaneously showcasing the evolving nature of the English language.