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.
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…