Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

'Tis Talk Like Shakespeare Day in Chicago, Methinks

Mayor Richard M. Daley, Jr., has proclaimed today, William Shakespeare's 445th birthday, Talk Like Shakespeare Day. (Or should that read, "Mayor Richard II hath proclaimed"?) But as University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron points out, we don't actually know how Shakespeare talked.

Recent ship hijackings in the Gulf of Aden suggest that this year's Talk Like a Pirate Day (initially scheduled for Sept. 19) may have to be postponed, and the ousting of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who likes a good literary quote almost as much as he doth protest his innocence too much, has left a hole in Chicago's political discourse which Talk Like Shakespeare Day may help to fill.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater has gotten behind this event with a web page full of Talk Like Shakespeare resources:

  • a list of words that Shakespeare seems to have coined
  • some favorite Shakespeare quotes (among them, the play's the thing; what's in a name? Alas, poor Yorick; and brave new world);
  • Shakespeare video clips (no, the Bard didn't make videos, but other people like the Beatles and Patrick Stewart have, or as Shakespeare might have put it, have done);
  • a utility that will translate your Twitter messages into Shakespearean tweets
  • and even a mask, so you can look like Shakespeare while you talk like him.

Mayor Daley wants Chicago's school children to use words like prithee, thou, fie, and knave "to celebrate the legacy of his language." Shakespeare may have been the first writer to use the contraction prithee, at least in print, but the full phrase I pray thee went back to the 1300s. Fie, according to the OED, was an onomatopoetic word referring to a bad smell. Knave meant 'a young boy,' 'a servant,' and 'a rogue' in Shakespeare's time. And thou, thee, thy and thine were second-person singular pronouns already giving way to the modern you, your, and yours.

Although people will strut around the Loop today mouthing Shakespearean words like climature and languageless, and peppering their conversations with quotes from the plays, like Ay, there's the rub, Et tu, Brute, and Lay on, Macduff, the problem with Talk Like Shakespeare Day is that nobody knows what Shakespeare actually talked like.

We know what the characters in Shakespeare's plays said, but nobody talked like that in real life. Sure, people used words like methinks and meseems. They said abroach, misdemean, and ratherest. The pronoun its was an innovation just starting to appear in Shakespeare's day (sort of like you guys as an innovation in the past 20 years; before its people said it, without an s, or sometimes his). But they probably didn't go around myching mallico (making mischief), leaning toward the nayward (leaning toward denial, disbelief), or accusing liars of not being oathable (trustworthy). And they certainly didn't use blank verse in ordinary conversation.

Shakespeare wrote some 28,000 different words in his plays (in contrast, the King James Bible, published in 1611, has about 8,000 different words, and the average American high school graduate has a vocabulary of 40,000 — 75,000 words — to paraphrase Bill Clinton, the actual numbers in these word counts depend on what the meaning of the word word is). And while some writers have Shakespeare coining as many as 1,500 — 1,700 words, the Folger Shakespeare Library credits him with a little over 500, and the OED lists Shakespeare as the first cited author for 247 words, ranging from airless and puppy dog to pleached 'fenced with interwoven boughs' and quatch, which could mean something like 'plump,' although that's a little uncertain since no one seems to have used the word quatch after Shakespeare did (until just now, that is).

When Shakespeare went to the bank he wasn't all, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be, For loan oft loses both itself and friend," which is what Polonius tells his son Laertes in Hamlet, instead of writing him a check. And when Shakespeare told a friend about a real shipping disaster he probably didn't call it "a ship of rich lading wrecked on the narrow seas," the words with which he describes Antonio's bad fortune in The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare surely didn't copy the words of the sleepwalking Lady Macbeth and the doctor observing her from any consultation in the office of his own GP: 

Lady Macbeth. Here's the smell of the blood still: all the
perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little
hand. Oh, oh, oh!
. . . .
Doctor. Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds
Do breed unnatural troubles: infected minds
To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets:
More needs she the divine than the physician.
God, God forgive us all! Look after her;
Remove from her the means of all annoyance,
And still keep eyes upon her. So, good night:
My mind she has mated, and amazed my sight.
I think, but dare not speak. 

Seventeenth-century patients, like today's, said the equivalent of, "It hurts me here, doc." Seventeenth-century physicians, like today's, didn't like to admit they were stumped. And of course there's the whole doctor-patient confidentiality thing.

We can't be sure what Shakespeare spoke like when he was offstage because no one back then had the technology to capture everyday language and preserve it. Despite Mayor Daley's best intentions, talking like Shakespeare requires more than peppering our conversation with an occasional thee, varlet or zounds, and despite throwing in a "Get thee to a nunnery" or "For this relief much thanks," no one will ever know if they're really talking like Shakespeare.

But that's OK, because if Shakespeare were alive today in Chicago, he himself wouldn't be talking like Shakespeare — well, he would be talking like Shakespeare, just not like the stereotype we have of the renaissance playwright. Instead, the Bard would be channeling Mayor Daley, or at least, if he were reincarnated as a playwright (though more likely he'd be a YouTube videographer), he'd base his dialogue on the words of Da Mair, even though characters in plays still don't talk onstage the same way they do when they're in the audience, at home, at the doctor's office, or like a lot of Illinois politicians, in jail. 


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 23rd 2009, 8:37 AM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom)
O how I miss 'thee,' though I never knew ye.
Thursday April 23rd 2009, 3:50 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth like hail in a tornado.
Friday May 8th 2009, 6:10 AM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)
Oh I am so sorry I missed Tis Talk Like Shakespeare Day. It would have been challenging. I am not so sure that we can unequivocally say that we don't know how Shakespeare spoke. English dialects have managed to pass words down from Anglo-Saxon so we must know some of his venacular vocabulary. I lived not far from Stratford in Gloucestershire and in the 21st Century there were still words being used that were unique to the area.
Saturday January 15th 2011, 10:38 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
Glad to be back.

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