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Shakespeare's Language


The writing of Shakespeare informs the language of the UK to this day, with his work still being the largest single source of quotations in the Oxford English Dictionary. But this can lead us to think we know more than we do about the language of the bard.

“We're going around in this circle,” says Lancaster University’s Professor Jonathan Culpeper of our understanding of Shakespeare’s use of English. “You miss the vision that the Elizabethan audience would have had when they saw the plays and what it would have meant to them.”

Culpeper’s new AHRC-funded project seeks to address this issue, in the shape of a two-volume Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language. The £1m project, which will draw upon a 321 million-word corpus of work by contemporaries, will allow Shakespeare’s usage finally to be studied in context. Utilising the latest technology, Professor Culpeper and his team of 23 researchers and panellists will examine the subtle meanings of linguistics that lie beneath the beautiful sonnets.

“One volume looks at individual words and expressions and the other one looks at patterns of words,” he says. “We will go through all of the words, in Shakespeare and construct comparative profiles for them all. We will do that for each word of Shakespeare and each character, each play, and so on.”

The results of the research promise to be fascinating if the preliminary work is anything to go by and the volumes have already been picked up for publication by Bloomsbury.

“Sometimes you have profiles that are totally guessable, so for Romeo what comes up as the most distinctive words in his speech are ‘love’ and ‘beauty’,” says Professor Culpeper. “But with Juliet, they are ‘if’, ‘yet’ and ‘but’. They look like words that don't have much meaning but in fact they do. What those reflect are her anxieties about whether Romeo is going to be true to her. That actually picks out a strong part of her character.”

Professor Culpeper strongly believes that these small words will be every bit as important as the more florid language that we more readily associate with Shakespeare. He believes that this is where the surprises may be.

“A lot of current glossaries and dictionaries tend to concentrate on hard words, or perceived hard words,” he says. “I'm going to look at all words. You can't assume that just because a word is frequent and you think you know it that your really do know it. So the interesting thing for me will be covering some of the words that appear to be the same as today's words, for example, the word ‘and’. It’s often in the top five if you look at frequency lists. Is it in the dictionaries? Often not, or only as a very short entry on the assumption that it's used identically. But that's not entirely true. In terms of meaning in Shakespeare's time there was the so-called ‘conditional and’, where it amounted to ‘and if’.”

Professor Culpeper thinks that having a profile for each play will allow for a level of literary criticism of Shakespeare that has never been achieved before. This means that the work can finally be judged using the standards of the time, rather than any romantic notion based on our love of Elizabethan language.

“If you go into a library you find shelves and shelves and shelves full of literary criticism and only a few books on the language of Shakespeare,” he says. “So this is a weird situation, that people talk about how wonderful and great the language is, but actually, the amount of research done on it is rather small. I want to redress that balance and move the focus actually onto the language using today's techniques.”


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