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Shakespeare’s linguistic setting: Early Modern English

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explain that Shakespeare's language was part of so-called Early Modern English.
What was Shakespeare’s linguistic setting? What kind of English was he using? Shakespeare was writing during what linguists and historians of English refer to as the early modern English period, often abbreviated to EModE. Although there is slight variation, most scholars identify the start of the early modern English period as 1450, and the end as 1750. Some point to the advent of printing as a factor in determining the beginning of this period. William Caxton set up his press in 1476. And some point to the advent of English going global in determining the end of this period. Declaration of American Independence was signed in 1776.
In addition, the scholar Roger Lass has shown that there are clearly identifiable differences between the linguistic characteristics of early modern English compared with other periods of English. Having said that, it is not as if early modern English contains one uniform set of linguistic features. Language is continually changing, so the beginning of the early modern English period is not quite like the middle, which is not quite like the end. Ultimately, the merit of a label like early modern English is that it is a convenient way to refer to a period of English.
Shakespeare was in fact writing in almost exactly the middle of the early modern English period, bearing in mind that most of his works were written in the decades either side of 1600. In the upcoming activities for this week, we will look at specific aspects of the kind of English that surrounded Shakespeare.
For now, bear in mind this one thing: there was no fully standardised English at that time. The standardisation of writing was taking place over the early modern period. There was no fully standardised set of spellings, grammatical structures, or indeed vocabulary. Even punctuation was still less than fully standardised.
Think of it this way: if you are unsure of the spelling today, you check it out using a dictionary, probably an online dictionary. Dictionaries codify spellings. They are one of a number of factors in standardisation. The first book to be vaguely like an English monolingual dictionary was only published in 1604, Cawdry’s Table Alphabetical. So looking a word up in a dictionary was not really an option in Shakespeare’s time. This was a period in which there wasn’t necessarily a default standardised choice, and consequently there wasn’t going to be tut-tutting from the pedants you get today, if you deviate from the written standard. It was a period, which accommodated greater flexibility, greater variability more easily.
And Shakespeare certainly exploited, as we shall see, the riches that that variability afforded.

Shakespeare’s language was not an island but part of “Early Modern English” (or EME). Early Modern English is a conventional label applied to the period of English, spanning approximately 1450 to 1750.

EME had its own linguistic characteristics, and was partly shaped by technological development (e.g. the development of the printing press) and by socio-cultural events (e.g. the declaration of American Independence, when English began to go global).

Above all, Early Modern English was not as standardised as it is today. Think about the pressure we experience today to conform to written “standards”, to write in particular ways. Think about how, for example, how you yourself use certain models (what is in dictionaries) to spell.

What are the implications of having fewer constraints of this kind? Give your thoughts in the comments!

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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