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Shakespeare's Grammar May Be The Real Source Of His Genius

First Posted: 04/22/2012 9:08 pm Updated: 04/22/2012 9:31 pm

Shakespeare

To celebrate Shakespeare's birthday, we're featuring some of our favorite archival pieces about his life and work. This one was first published in January 2012. Happy Birthday Bill!

Read a line from a William Shakespeare play and notice the cadence with which you speak. All of those breaths and pauses from the commas and semicolons spread seemingly sporadically within the flowery language are not just for theatrical drama; they may be the source of Shakespeare's genius.

Dr. Jonathan Hope, a reader in English in the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, dedicates a majority of his research to figuring out what makes Shakespeare's prose so, well, poetic. In an article titled "English in the World: History, Diversity, Change," Hope writes about his findings.

Through computer-based linguistic analysis, Hope dissects the language of Early Modern literature, with a focus on the works of Shakespeare. His work has revealed that it is not an advanced vocabulary that makes the heart, and tongue, of literary experts and novices alike pine, and sometimes twist, but the linguistic, grammatical and syntactical aspects of his writing,

Though there is no doubt the writer had a knack for language (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, he coined more than 500 words), it was his liberal use of grammar that set him apart.

The English language was developing and evolving so rapidly during the 16th and 17th centuries that writers of the time period could essentially use the English language like clay; often molding and constructing a new vocabulary.

"He was writing at a time when the English language's vocabulary was expanding rapidly but, while he had a rich vocabulary himself, it was on a par with other writers from the same time," Hope wrote.

Though writers of the same century used words in a similar manner, Hope says it is Shakespeare's unorthodox grammar and syntax and longevity in his works that truly gained him the status he has today.

"He wrote during a transitional period for English grammar when there was a range of grammatical options open to writers," Hope wrote. "Much of the grammar he chose now seems old-fashioned but it lends poetry to commonplace words and, significantly, while his spelling is often updated, his grammar is not."

Dr. Hope published his findings in "English in the World: History, Diversity, Change," a book dedicated to the origin, history and development of the English language. The book was released Jan. 24.

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