Shaking the Speare

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by commyxtion and mellyng, furst with Danes and afterward with Normans, in menye the contray longage ys apeyred, and som useth strange wlaffying, chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbittyng.

That’s Ranulph Higden, writing in 1352, and complaining in his Polychronicon about the debasement of the English language.

As a bit of recreation from digging around in tomes of social theory and political philosophy for my thesis, I’ve been dipping into the awesome David Crystal’s new book, The Stories of English.

According to the publisher’s blurb:

Many books have been written about English, but they have all focused on a single variety the educated, printed language called ‘standard’ English. David Crystal turns the history of English on its head and instead provides a startlingly original view of where the richness, creativity and diversity of the language truly lies in the accents and dialects of nonstandard English users all over the world.

One of the most fascinating things (at least for someone who wants an etymological dictionary for Christmas) is what Crystal says about the entry and coinage of inventive and expressive new words into our guilded tongue. Not least by one William Shakespeare. But how inventive was Shakespeare actually, and is it true that his vocabulary far outshines those of the average educated reader today?

In his chapter, ‘Linguistic Daring’, Crystal writes:

…in contributions to a television programme on the bard in early 2000, such comments were made as ‘Shakespeare invented a quarter of our language’ and ‘Shakespeare is our language’. At another point, Shakespeare was said to have four times as many words as the average undergraduate, who – the ‘expert’ opined – has a vocabulary of 5,000 words. In another television programme at the end of 2002, adult average vocabulary was said to be 10,000 words.

Like a linguistic detective, Crystal gets to the truth of the matter. Now, it matters if we count words (eg go, goeth or goest) or lexemes (and the dividing line’s blurred), but it does seem that Shakespeare used between 17,000 and 20,000 lexemes – about 13% of the then stock of English lexemes of around 150,000. Leaving aside obsolescent terms, there are around 400,000 lexemes now current in Modern English. Studies have found that the average educated person (the sample included office workers, lecturers and business people) actively use around 50,000 words, and recognise about a further 12,500 that they know but don’t use. The basic reason for this is that we now have a lot more words at our disposal than Shakespeare did.

Many of the new words Shakespeare used for the first time are likely to have been the first recorded instance rather than a coinage (ie ‘sblood as an oath would have been in common usage, but he probably made up exsufflicate). But some of Shakespeare’s coinages are unique to him and never used again, except in citation. I like unshout.

Probably more interesting is Shakespeare’s inventiveness with noun-verb coinages. Consider these examples:

Petruchio is Kated (The Taming of the Shrew, III.ii.244)

He childed as I fathered (King Lear, III.vi.108)

his discernings are lethargied (King Lear, I.iv.225)

And notable also are the number of everyday expressions which derive from Shakespeare:

with bated breath (The Merchant of Venice, I.iii.121)

the game is up (Cymbeline, III.iii.107)

I have been in such a pickle (The Tempest, V.i.282)

The message from Crystal? Don’t be afraid to experiment, don’t be afraid to express yourself, and don’t get bogged down by notions of “linguistic purity”. To be inventive is far more in the spirit of a language which is voracious in its borrowing of terms and its coining of new words. Oh, and don’t worry about writing “c u 2morrow”.

I think it’d be excellent, for instance, if “jarring grisbiting” were to come back into style…

One for the pundits of literacy to ponder…

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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David Tiley
2022 years ago

I am a bit suspicious of Mr Crystal. Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is pretty good; I remember a book of a television series around ten years ago which had great slabs of dialect which were just gorgeous. (can’t find it on easy google pass..)

Both would suggest that the publisher’s blurb at least is mendacious. Lovely word – don’t let it die. It is the kind of remark which insults generations of scholars.

Although I have just done it, anyone who cites a television program as suggesting the state of scholarship needs his head read. I don’t know of any academic work on this, but I think the decline of academic standards in non-fiction television in the last decade has been awesome and sick making. This kind of publisher’s claim is what I mean.

(In fact, a way of doing the academic work would be to study programs about the history of the English language. Would make a good MA.. no, I have other things to do.)

I love coining words and do it constantly. The problem is intelligibility. The rules require that our minds seamlessly scoop material off the page without interruption or meta-interrogation, unless you are using the scrape for effect. Which of course is the basis of a huge amount of art and rhetoric.

Hence standardised grammar and spelling. I just loathe the SMS dialect because I have to pick my way thru it like a 6 yr old. Easy to write, hard to read and I suspect it works better for those people still moving their lips when they read.

BUT it is a dialect set up for the mobile phone, and people have learnt to use it seamlessly and it works as a form of communication. Their dialect, their rules, works fine. My personal preference makes no difference. But it won’t turn up on my blog, which is an inappropriate context.

And of course all this is just awful for the pundits of literacy.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

David, I was a bit wary of quoting from the publisher’s blurb – as I think it picks up too heavily on one aspect of the book in an attempt to expand the readership internationally. I did a lot of research and writing on a major academic book proposal once – it’s remarkable what straightjackets publishers will force you into these days in the interests of marketing.

I think you should read the book if you can – it really is fabulous. And Crystal wasn’t citing the tv shows as evidence of academic work – quite the opposite. His point was more about common misconceptions fostered by “high-brow tv”.

As to sms speak, I’m an sms addict. But I recently got a new phone which makes it easier to compose and has a better predictive spelling programme so I now find my text messages are approximating much closer to standard English.

Incidentally, there are so many different linguistic registers. I like blog writing because it forces me to be concise and to think about communicating (not exactly things that are at a premium in academic writing). But I was thinking about Crystal’s comments on the use of ‘well’ as a multi-use conversational word. I realised then I’d just done something a bit similar, with my sentence “Oh, and don’t worry about writing”.

His comments about a certain degree of meta-linguistic awareness being necessary for developing a personal style were also fascinating. I wonder how many of us could pick the author of a blog post if they were given to us stripped of obvious identifiers. I’ve been told by friends they can always pick my writing, whether it’s an essay, a blog post, an email or whatever. But I’m dismally unaware myself as a writer of why this might be so.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Btw, David – I was struck by how well the phrase “som useth strange wlaffying, chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbittyng” described parts of the blogosphere!

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

“garryng grisbittyng”

What a lovely musical phrase – what does it mean?

derrida derider
derrida derider
2022 years ago

Yes, a living language mutates endogenously as well as crossing promiscuously with both its own dialects and other languages. As any biologist can tell you, thi is the route to becoming a dominant form. The Academie Francaise has got it all wrong.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

I think I might have been “garryng grisbittyng” a bit because I am so cumulatively annoyed by the pressure of marketing on popular works of ideas.

On the one hand we have seen a slow explosion in the publication of non-fiction books. I don’t know what the numbers are but I can really remember in the late Sixties how those pompous old Penguins gave way to the racier Paladins, which turned out to presage a veritable revolution. The baby boomers wanted to feed their heads.

We have really seen a rise of a new profession – the non-fiction popular writer, often writing history or science.

But now the market is so crowded we are stuck with an evil set of mantras. What is new? What revelations? What breakthroughs? Cures for cancer? What secrets? What corpses unwrapped? What evil exposed in the respectable?

So Mr Crystal comes into a humming field – perhaps two books per year for the last ten years, most of them good fun. How is he going to distinguish himself? Particularly now that the op-ed review space is declining in the press..

He has a big website which is an interesting sign.