A SIMPLE MATTER OF QUANTITY AND QUALITY
Most people who read Shakespeare’s plays and poems assume that he had a rather large vocabulary. One thing is certain; he was a very inventive wordsmith, often coining new words and phrases within his works. Which is not surprising since at the time he was writing the English language was undergoing a large influx of new words. This embellishment of the language took place between 1550 and 1650 and was due, in part, to more works being printed, the influx of foreign words from other cultures due to the increase in exploration and trade and the development of new terminology for scientific studies. But was this playwright, who was educated and learned his English in a provincial grammar school setting in Stratford-upon-Avon, far removed from the more standardized English that was taught in London, really in possession of a huge vocabulary?
One of the best sources of information about Shakespeare’s vocabulary is a book by David Crystal called Think On My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Mr. Crystal proposes a figure of about 20,000 separate words for the size of Shakespeare’s vocabulary. Now, the available vocabulary at the time Shakespeare was writing his plays and poems is estimated to be about 150,000 words. Shakespeare had a large recorded vocabulary because he wrote across a number of different genres and, simply because he wrote a lot more than his contemporaries. Mr. Crystal goes on to propose an active vocabulary of 50,000 words for an educated twenty-first century person, drawing on an available vocabulary of the some 600,000 words that can be found in the Oxford English Dictionary.
So, how do we stack up against the Bard? What conclusions can be drawn from these figures? Well, according to Mr. Crystal, Shakespeare’s vocabulary is less than half of your own and represents a slightly lower proportion of the available words than you have at your disposal. Of course, a case could be made that we are comparing apples and oranges here, but in the end, it is not really the number of words that Shakespeare had in his vocabulary that matters, but the sheer beauty and genius with which he used them…
Shakespeare is buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. His gravestone bears an epitaph which Shakespeare himself supposedly wrote. It warns:
Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.
You can get more information on Shakespeare’s epitaph at this interesting link:
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