Think on my Words, by David Crystal
Subtitled "Exploring Shakespeare's Language" this book does pretty much
that, in typical Crystal enthusiastic and engaging style (I've used some of
David Crystal's other books when I did my linguistics course, and he's
always good value for money). This
complements his son's book nicely but
is a little more focused on the language used and a little less evangelical
about the plays.
Some of the things I highlighted from the book
He also refers to the Shakespeare's
Words website which is a companion to one of his other books, and it's a
really good resource.
- Shakespeare did not have the largest vocabulary of any English
writer (the usual figure given is around 20,000 words, which compares to a
vocabulary of around 50,000 words for speakers today)
- with regard to Shakespeare being "difficult" - sometimes complex language
is used to convey a simple thought, but sometimes he uses simple language to
convey complex thoughts.
- Some words are unfamiliar to us and need a gloss, but often their meaning
is fairly easy to infer from the context. More awkward are false
friends - words like "naughty" or "silly" which we think we recognise
but had a different sense in Elizabethan times. Techniques such as
collocation can be used to work out meanings.
- As in Ben Crystal's book, he quotes a figure of 5% for the number of words
which need explanation. "People who argue that Shakespearean vocabulary is
unintelligible and inaccessible tend to quote the hard words and ignore the
easier ones. It is always good practice to read the whole of a speech
before worrying about the difficulties found in a part of it"
- Explains how printing techniques of the time, and the fact that spelling
and punctuation weren't standardised ("the Elizabethan spelling system was
in - what we linguistics technically call - a mess"), leads to discrepancies
between various folio/quarto versions
- Discusses conventions used in the printed texts that seem to be used to
save space, so that columns don't get too wide, such as abbreviations and
the use of tilde to indicate missing letters
- with reference to punctuation, the symbol "?" used to be called "point
of interrogation", and only became "question mark" in 1905
- a fair amount on how poetry works, the fact that rhyme as an indicator of
poetry went out of fashion and was replaced by rhythm. As to
why pentameter, "my own view is that it is probably because the pentameter
comes closest to the way our brain processes everyday speech..." he goes on
to give some justification for this, finishing by saying "It is the optimal
working unit for oral performance in English"
- How did they pronounce words in Shakespeare's day? Some stuff about how
we work it out, including the fact that the word "July" used have its stress
on the first syllable (until some time in the eighteenth century).
- Why did Shakespeare use the term "vasty"? find out on p. 150
Good book, one to keep and refer to.
Completed : 16-Mar-2009