The language of Shakespeare

Generally recognised as the greatest writer in the English language and perhaps the greatest playwright the world has ever seen, William Shakespeare would have been 449 on April 23. Hailed as much for his plays as for his poetry, he is also considered to have had the single most telling influence on the evolution of the English language than any writer before or since. By some estimates, he is credited with having introduced approximately 1,700 words into English, borrowing widely to create numerous neologisms and to coin often poetic turns of phrase, many of which remain with us today, so much so that they seem almost commonplace – household words, as Shakespeare himself put it in Henry V.

Bernard Levin, the late British journalist, himself noted for his prolific output, wit and mastery of the language, perhaps best captures Shakespeare’s seminal impact in this famous passage:

“If you cannot understand my argument, and declare ‘It’s Greek to me,’ you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or 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 good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.”

Thus, if the Bard of Avon were to visit Britain today, there would be much that he would find familiar in everyday speech. Of course, he would probably be bedazzled (first used in The Taming of the Shrew) not only by the changes in English pronunciation but also by the continued growth and enrichment (some may quibble about the latter) of English, courtesy of technology, popular culture and the former Empire.

Indeed, it may well be argued that the evolution of English into the global tongue means that concepts of the ‘Queen’s English’ and ‘Oxford English’ have become anachronisms. Even ‘BBC English’, once the gold standard propagated by the World Service, is now broadcast in a variety of regional and international accents. No one can reasonably find fault with this, but the discerning ear will note that even the language of the BBC’s announcers is increasingly replete with grammatical mistakes, no matter how impressive the accent.

There’s the rub, as Hamlet said. A recurring complaint in the UK is that even the English do not speak their language properly, as multiculturalism and declining standards in language teaching have taken their toll. But Shakespeare would probably not have been too bothered. After all, as a wordsmith, he was in the business of innovation, even making verbs of nouns, one of the particular irritants of the grammatically correct nowadays.

Were Shakespeare to come to Guyana, he would probably be equally excited about the possibilities of language as a living organism and would perhaps delight in exploring the rhythms and expressions of our Creolese.

All this should not, however, encourage the linguistic anarchists in the media, our educational institutions, the public service and government, to continue to desecrate the English language. English is still the international language of business, science and intergovernmental relations, and there is nothing to be gained from being uncomprehending and incomprehensible when communicating with others.

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