Do they still teach Shakespeare in high school? Are there still students trying to read Macbeth or Hamlet and wondering why Shakespeare thought he should use language that is just confusing and hard to understand? Do they wonder what kind of a sadist would do that to kids just trying to finish a report on Ophelia?
So, here’s the answer. Shakespeare is not, to the best of our knowledge, a sadist. He did not write his plays to cause high school students to scream into their pillows as they try to decipher what Iago means or Shylock is saying. What Shakespeare did was write to the language of his time.
Yep, people actually spoke that way, if not as formally as we hear in his plays. But then, no one speaks as formally as the people in a play or movie or on TV who are repeating a memorized script. That tends to take all the ums and ahs and grammatical errors out of their speeches. But they are still speaking as we speak today. Just as Shakespeare’s characters speak in the language of their time.
Language changes. Sentences get longer, then shorter. Addressing another person gets formal, then informal, then formal again depending on the circumstances. And the language used under each circumstance will be different. When language changes, so does meanings. Words come into our language from other languages and eventually become part of our vocabulary – think pasta and taco and sushi. OK, I realize my examples all come from the food aisle, but I may just be hungry.
I was raised in Catholic schools taught by nuns and only nuns. They were very strict about grammar. When I finally graduated from a Catholic college, I was so well versed in the way to use the English language that it was second nature to me.
But as time has gone on and those years are far away in my rear-view mirror, I must admit that language and grammar has changed. Words have entered the language from the city streets through rap and other significant musical genres. Bad started meaning good. Fat has nothing to do with body size and I don’t believe is even spelled that way. Who knew what a burqa was a few short years ago unless you were a student of mid-Eastern studies.
There is a reason Webster’s adds new words to their dictionary every year. It’s because new words arise from any number of sources that then become an integral part of our language. Google, anyone?
If we were to go back to Dickens, admittedly my favorite author, or Thackery’s Vanity Fair, you will find words that mean nothing to you embedded in sentences that go on forever. Most people don’t write that way anymore. Sentences tend to be shorter and much less descriptive. And if Thackery or Dickens came back to read what passes for literature today, they would be flummoxed by our sentence structure and word meanings.
Let me repeat, language changes. Meanings change. Usage changes. Shakespeare’s audiences understood exactly what the actors were saying because the actors were speaking their language, their cadence, their words.
We are used to language that has speeded up. The shorter sentences mean we speak more quickly and get our meaning across faster. Even if you read Dickens, who wrote less than 200 years ago, it quickly becomes evident that people had longer attention spans that could read long and involved sentences with comprehension and understanding. Today, many people struggle to maintain their attention through an article in People magazine.
I think our changing language is a wonderful thing because it means our language is a living thing that keeps our world interesting. I lived in Utqiagvik for almost 30 years. So many Inupiaq words are automatically part of my language now, words I heard over and over while I lived there, Inupiaq words used interchangeably with English.
I think that enriched my world. It helped me see that world through a different lens. It placed that lens on my language and made it richer. If people want to debate language in the letters section of this newspaper, then I say go for it. It beats hell out of what usually gets discussed. Ultimately, it may make our world a little more understandable among the many groups that inhabit it with us.