Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Shakespeare IS the English Language myth (part 2)

What Jonathan Culpeper returns to the myth that Shakespeare's language is the English language.
In this video talk, we return to the myth that Shakespeare’s language is the English language, and more specifically look at particular expressions. How have particular expressions in Shakespeare fared in the history of English? Research is somewhat lacking here, but I would illustrate corpus-based possibilities with a discussion of four Shakespeare expressions. In the conclusions, I will also briefly mention the issue of whether people actually perceive the language we use today to be Shakespeare’s. Of course, what Shakespeare might have donated to the English language is not necessarily just single words– it could be combinations of words. One reason for looking at combinations of words is that it tends to be easier to establish their provenance and track their histories.
If we are thinking about combinations of words, that is the business of grammar. But I’m not talking about grammatical structures here. I’m talking about particular combinations of words that make up expressions that have become conventionalized units in the English language. Here are four examples– “sea change” from The Tempest, “brave new world” from The Tempest again, “band of brothers” from Henry V, and “salad days” from Antony and Cleopatra. There may be a case for saying that some of these– “sea change” or “salad days,” for example– look like open compounds. But that is certainly not true of all of them. I’m going to show you how these have fared in the history of English using Google’s N-Gram Viewer.
You can find this for yourself if you search on the internet and you can use it for free. This interface interrogates the Google Books repository of printed works. It is said to contain at least 361 billion words of English– so pretty big. It is not entirely without its problems, of course. One is that it includes all editions of books, so that if a book goes through many editions, one might argue that it becomes over-represented. Nevertheless, given its size, it is still useful for many purposes. This graph displays the four expressions first recorded in Shakespeare and shows their frequency in print books over 200 years– that is from 1780 through to just beyond the year 2000.
Let’s start with “salad days” in red. This bumps along at the bottom and to be frank, is not very interesting. The next one up is “band of brothers” in green. You will note that on the left hand side, there is a spike around 1800. This seems largely due to its use by Admiral Nelson during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, a use that was picked up and reported in the papers at the time. Incidentally, I am not guessing about the connection here. With the N-Gram Viewer, you can look at the actual uses that underlie the numbers and see what is going on. Further to the right, you will see a peak in the 1850s.
This seems to have been partly driven by the Crimean War, which ran from 1853 to 1856. There is then a steady decline until just after the year 2000. What happens then? Well, in 2001, the broadcast company HBO released a war TV series called Band of Brothers. The next one up is “brave new world” in blue. Perhaps the particular thing to note here is that it bumps along at the bottom and then peaks in the early 1940s. Why that massive peak? Well, that’s due to the publication of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World in 1932. Finally, we have a “sea change” in orange. For most of its life, “sea change” is a bit like “salad days,” bumping along the bottom.
Then all of a sudden, it accelerates massively around the year 2000. This is driven by the adoption of this expression in reports on what is happening in financial markets– as in, there’s been a sea change in the markets this morning.
Let’s wrap things up. Taking specific Shakespeare expressions and tracing them from works purporting to be by Shakespeare through to the present day is feasible, and their fascinating individual histories as part of the English language can be revealed. Finally, do people really perceive Shakespeare’s language in English? A PhD by Sarah Grandage at the University of Nottingham addresses this very issue. She took a number of Shakespeare expressions– including, for example, “band of brothers–” and tested people’s knowledge of those expressions. Whilst a few knew where they came from and their are slight variation according to the particular expression, in general people have no idea where they come from.

Again, we examined the myth that Shakespeare’s language is the English language, but this time we are looking at particular expressions. More specifically, four expressions are examined: “Sea change” from The Tempest; “Brave New World” from The Tempest again; “band of brothers”, from Henry V; and “salad days” from Antony and Cleopatra.

The tool used to explore these expressions is Google’s N-Gram Viewer, which you can find for yourself if you search on the Internet (use is free). This interface interrogates the Google Books repository of printed works (about 361 billion words of English).

As discussed in the video-talk, the rise and falls of each of these expressions can be explained by the advent of particular events (e.g. the sudden rise of “band of brothers” around 1800 seems to have been motivated by Admiral Nelson’s use).

At the end of the talk, there is brief consideration of whether people today actually know that these expressions come from Shakespeare. Generally speaking, they don’t!

Feel free to have a go with Google’s N-Gram Viewer yourselves, perhaps for other expressions. Put any points of interest in the comments.

This article is from the free online

Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now