Tuesday, 11 November 2014

You Taught Me Language....

To Infinity and Beyond - quick number summary


With 200 words – you can survive (toddler language)
With 850 words – you can thrive (competent 8 year old)
2000 words – the total used by the average modern-day Jill or Joe (teenager base words)
With 4000 words – the Janet or John who reads will function successfully (educated teenager base words)
12,000 to 17,000 words – the number of base words used regularly by a modern adult with average intelligence
25,000 words – popular writers with numerous works
50,000 to 75,000 words – ALL the words known by a modern adult including all the plurals, negatives, derivations, declensions and conjugations (for example counting "is," "was" and "wasn't" as well as "be") [Some of these words will never be spoken but they will be understood when seen or heard in context.]

28,829 words....

My big reveal is that Shakespeare in fact used FEWER words than the number known and understood by many educated modern adults. He used over 65,000 words (compared to 75,000 for the highest ranking modern person) if you count all variations. With the help of computer technology, we now know he used 28,829 unique word forms and 12,493 of those words forms occur only once.  Interestingly, the top 100 most frequently occurring words (the same 100 words back in Jacobethan times as in modern times) make up 53.9% of his entire output.  Put another way, 50% of Shakespeare's work is made up of language used by the average modern 2 year old.

Not such a hot shot linguist then?


Anti-Stratfordians sometimes argue that Shakespeare’s lack of a university education is evidence that the son of a glover and a brewer descended from farming stock in the Midlands could not write the works in the First Folio.  But as I have demonstrated above, around 50% of his work is very simple, basic English.

Robber and partner

We also know chunks of Shakespeare’s work was adapted, sometimes closely (nicked you might say), from the works of other writers: Plutarch, Plautus, Holinshed, Arthur Brooke, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Chaucer to name the most obvious and famous examples. Shakespeare was a jackdaw writer, stealing fragments, nicking words and phrases, adapting plots, robbing motifs and plagiarising plot devices.  We know also that he was a collaborator, working without doubt on some plays with Middleton, Fletcher and George Wilkins.  Possibly Nashe, Peele and Munday too.  (Let me know if you want the evidence for any of the statements in this paragraph….) This doesn't lessen his achievement in my eyes. Michelin star chefs today are not thought rubbish because they are using ingredients that have been used before....
Sources and Collaborators

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it


Stealing from others for creative and artistic reasons is not a cop-out. As one of my favourite writers, Alan Garner, memorably wrote: "Originality is the personal colouring of existing themes." Shakespeare’s linguistic reputation relates to what he does with his sources, what he does with the language, how he portrays characters in action and how he reveals the themes and issues in stories that thrill, surprise and delight 400 years later. Poor vocabulary, maybe, in comparison with a modern reader; but, oh my, the way he puts those words together!
You taught me language and my profit on't is
I know how to curse....
Caliban in The Tempest