How is the Language of Shakespeare Different From Ours?

From The Lecture Series: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Language as a human phenomenon is subject to change over time. These historical changes have turned Old English into Middle English and then to Modern English. But as speakers of English, these changes might not be tangible or perceivable to us. We might think that the changes in the English language happened a very long time ago and will not happen again.

A book cover by Shakespeare under a magnifying glass.
Shakespeare’s language is different from Modern English. (Image: JasaShmasa/Shutterstock)

Semantic Changes in English Since the Time of Shakespeare

Language change can happen in various aspects, including semantics, pronunciation, and grammar. There are a lot of words that have changed their meaning over time. It is because of these semantic changes that we have difficulty understanding Shakespeare. As speakers of modern English, sometimes we even misunderstand Shakespeare because the words or phrases that he used have different meanings in the English of our age. For example, the word silly originally meant blessed, but now it means foolish. 

Even educated people, though it’s hard for them to admit, have a difficult time grasping the meaning of Shakespeare’s language. If someone has to process the language of Shakespeare at a different pace from their everyday normal English, it is not because they are ignorant or do not have a proficient grasp of their mother tongue. The reason is that the language that Shakespeare spoke and wrote in is different from what we speak and write in today.

Learn more about dialect representations in Middle English.

William Shakespeare's Hamlet (original Middle English text from the First Folio of 1623) - selective focus.
Shakespeare is difficult to understand because his language is different. (Image: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock)

Paradoxically, foreign speakers do not have trouble understanding Shakespeare. It is because Shakespeare’s plays are translated into the modern versions of their mother languages. Even native speakers of English have had an easier and more enjoyable experience of watching a Shakespeare’s play in other languages.

So, the next time you see yourself struggling to sit through a Shakespeare play, don’t be hard on yourself thinking you are an uncultured philistine who does not enjoy arts and literature. You are just struggling to understand what Shakespeare says because his English is very different from yours.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Semantic Changes as Shown in Romeo and Juliet

The language of Shakespeare has undergone many changes throughout these centuries, especially concerning the meaning of the words. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says: “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” what we make of this sentence quite readily is, where are you, Romeo?  But after that she says something that doesn’t fit in our perceived context. She says, “Deny thy father and refuse thy name; or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love, And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.” Based on what she says next, she actually means, why are you Romeo? Why aren’t you someone else? Why do you come from a family that has a life-long feud with mine? So at the time of Shakespeare, wherefore meant why.

Another word that has seen a change in meaning is wit. In Shakespeare’s comedy, Twelfth Night, it is used with a different denotation. Viola says: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool. And to do that well craves a kind of wit.” If we take wit with the meaning it has today, the sentence makes no sense, or at least it sounds paradoxical. Does it mean being a fool requires being funny? This doesn’t seem insightful from a genius playwright like Shakespeare. It doesn’t make sense since wit means knowledge.

Learn more about the beginnings of English.

Wit is used in the same meaning in a couple of other phrases. Mother wit means the knowledge to deal with everyday issues or common sense. Or in the phrase keeping your wit about you does not involve keeping your jokes about you to tell at parties. Rather, it involves keeping your knowledge about you. So at the time of Shakespeare, wit meant knowledge, and now it has a different meaning.

Old English inscription over the arch of the south porticus in the 10th-century St Mary's parish church, Breamore, Hampshire
Old English turned Into Middle English and then Modern English. (Image: Hogweard/Public domain)

Another interesting case is a sentence in which all the parts have shifted their meaning. In Hamlet, we read: “Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.” What we are inclined to get from this sentence is: let people criticize you but reserve your judgment. Or when people abuse you, keep quiet. It is definitely not advice we would take as rational. It is because it doesn’t mean that. It actually means size someone up but keep quiet about it.

The English language has gone through so many changes that one wonders whether understanding Shakespeare would be much different in English and Vietnamese. This is why even native speakers of English have to read Shakespeare with a knowledge of these changes to avoid the feeling of frustration from not being able to get a whole idea of what is going on.  

Common Questions about How Language of Shakespeare Different from Ours

Q: How has the English language changed over time?

The English language has transformed over its history. It changed from Old English to Middle English to Modern English. All features of the language, namely grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary, and spelling have changed over time.

Q: How is Shakespearean language different from modern English?

There are so many differences in the language of Shakespeare and modern English. For example, semantic changes have led to different meanings of words. A word like silly meant blessed, while it means foolish today.

Q: Why is Shakespeare’s English so different?

Shakespeare’s English is so different because English has changed over these centuries. Words have adopted new meanings and some features have been eliminated from the English language.

Q: Why do some readers find Shakespeare’s writing difficult?

Some readers find Shakespeare’s writing difficult because the English language was different at that time. It is not because of ignorance or illiteracy. The only reason is that many words have changed their meanings over these centuries.

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