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Was it all Greek to the Elizabethans?

What would the Elizabethans actually have made of Shakespeare’s language?

The creation of an Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language, a major research project at Lancaster University, will determine just that.

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Led by Professor Jonathan Culpeper and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the project will focus on the meanings of the language used.

“2016 is awash with Shakespeare as we celebrate him on the 400th anniversary of his death,” says Professor Culpeper, from the University’s Linguistics Department. “Supported by hundreds of years of scholarly enterprise, Shakespeare is now a global phenomenon.

“But what don’t we know already about Shakespeare’s language?

“Despite the fact that we celebrate his language, there is actually relatively little work on it in comparison with literary critical studies of his works.”

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The Encyclopaedia project has far greater ambitions than merely gap-filling.

“One of the areas we know very little about is what the Elizabethans themselves would have made of Shakespeare’s language,” explains Professor Culpeper. “When they heard a word in one of Shakespeare’s plays, what did it mean to them?”

Current dictionaries of Shakespeare do not look beyond the language of Shakespeare, and, adds Professor Culpeper, even the entries of the Oxford English Dictionary for that period are largely based on quotations from Shakespeare.

“It’s all rather circular,” he says. “The difference now is that we will be using computers to examine how the Elizabethans, in general, used words, and from there, we can work out what they meant in the language of the time.”

“I started planning this project 20 years ago. Back then, the key problem was the lack of data. Now we’ve got a collection of 321 million words of writings from Shakespeare’s time at our finger tips.”

In a pilot study, Professor Culpeper’s team used computers to investigate, for example, the word ‘Welsh’ and the patterns of words that co-occur with it in Elizabethan writings.

“In Henry V, Shakespeare has the Welsh soldier Fluellen brandishing leeks,” explains Professor Culpeper. “But it’s not just leeks with the Welsh. Our analysis showed that the notion of ‘Welsh’ barely registered on the Elizabethan consciousness, with one exception – the Welsh language, which was treated like some antiquarian curiosity.”

“Shakespeare’s efforts to make Fluellen’s English sound Welsh-like, such as getting him to say ‘pig’ for ‘big’, would certainly have chimed with the Elizabethans.”

As the project progresses, the researchers also aim to discover what is truly unique about Shakespeare by comparing his language with that of his contemporaries.

Another pilot study has already provided some glimpses.

“Shakespeare seems to love the word ‘I’ as in the pronoun referring to one’s self. It is a little word but an important one. Modern drama is similar to an over-heard conversation – we listen to characters asking questions like ‘What do you think about X?’ and we learn about characters from their answers. But Shakespeare is much more geared to the direct presentation of the self through the word ‘I'”.

The encyclopaedia will be published in two volumes, part of it will be available as an app, and all the resources used to create it will be available to scholars and students.

Lancaster University

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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