Shakespeare and the English Language


Just how profound was Shakespeare's influence on the development of the English language?

Incredibly profound! Before Shakespeare's time, written English, on the whole, was not standardized. His works contributed significantly to the standardization of grammar, spelling, and vocabulary.

A small sampling of words introduced by Shakespeare: dishearten, frugal, generous, assassination, critic, lapse, impartial, hurry, dislocate, obscene, pious, road, monumental, apostrophe, laughable, reliance, lonely. It's said that he was responsible for introducing 1700 original words into the language (despite significant changes to the language since Shakespeare's time).

Some phrases that we use daily that originated in Shakespearean works include "breaking the ice," "having a "heart of gold," "it's Greek to me," "all that glitters isn't gold," "be all and end all," "elbowroom," "one fell swoop," "mind's eye," "housekeeping," lackluster," "naked truth," "clothes make the man," "catch a cold"...

Shakespeare's impact on poetry and literature has lasted centuries. He perfected blank verse, which became a standard in poetry. Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Charles Dickens were all heavily influenced by Shakespeare. The impact led George Steiner to conclude that romantic English poets were "feeble variations on Shakespearean themes."

A little more (for those of you who dig this stuff!)...

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc'd it to you,

trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our

players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.

— Hamlet Act 3, scene 2, 1-4

Having penned some lines for a play he hopes will pique the king's interest [see THE PLAY'S THE THING ], Hamlet now assumes the role of director. He instructs the "players" (performers) on proper delivery, apparently fearing that they may smother his lines with the sort of bombast common on the stages of Shakespeare's London. Rather than "mouth" his speech-declaim it with the whole mouth-he would have them deliver it "trippingly on the tongue." "Trippingly" seems to mean "liltingly" or "nimbly," using only the delicate tongue rather than the full throat. This, Hamlet believes, will make for a more effective delivery, because it will be more like real speech.

Shakespeare coined the word "trippingly" in an earlier play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.  There, Oberon the king of fairies commands all his elves and spirits to "Hop as light as bird from brier,/ And this ditty, after me,/ Sing, and dance it trippingly" (Act 5, scene 1). "Trippingly," as Oberon uses it, refers back to the light hopping of birds and is applied to the physical act of dancing. Hamlet attributes the adverb to the physical action of speech, but lends the word a more abstract meaning, imagining that the words themselves can "trip."