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Monday, May 25, 2009

How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know?

When starting learning a new language, people are often obsessed with how big their vocabulary is. But the really important issue is not how many words you know, but how you use the words you know.

Take the example of the master of English language, Shakespeare. There are some wonderful statistics in Bill Bryson's work Shakespeare The World As Stage:

Marvin Spevack in his magnificent and hefty concordance counts 29,066 different words in Shakespeare, but that rather generously includes inflected forms and contractions. If instead you treat all the variant forms of a word - for example, take, takes, taketh, taking, tak'n, taken, tak'st, tak't, took, tooke, took'st, and tookst - as a single word (or lexeme, to use the scholarly term), which is the normal practice, his vacabulary falls back to about 20,000 words, not a terribly impressive number.

Obviously, it wasn't so much a matter of how many words he used, but what he did with them - and no one has ever done more.
Right there, we can see that Shakespeare's vocabulary was not greater than any average educated person now a days. It is thought, the average person today knows probably 50,000 words. A simple reason is that there are thousands of common words - television, sandwich, seatbelt, etc. - that Shakespeare couldn't know because they didn't yet exist. So vacabulary alone didn't count for what made Shakespeare Shakespeare.

Another amazing thing about Shakespeare is that he was really liberated to coin new words whenever he felt the needs. More from Bill Bryson:

He coined - or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of - 2,035 words, and interestingly he indulged the practice from the very outset of his career. Titus Andronicus and Love's Labour's Lost, two of his earliest words, have 140 new words between them.

In plays written during his most productive and inventive period - Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear - neologisms occur at the fairly astonishing rate of one every two and a half line. Hamlet alone gave audience about six hundred words that, according to all other evidence, they had never heard before.

Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, well-read, and countless others (including countless). Where would we be without them?
That was amazing. I wonder if anyone can do the same thing today, if anyone can write a play, or a fiction with this large amount of newly invented words there.

On another thought, it also shows how easy it is to coin an English word. It won't be as easy to invent a new Chinese character. That is one of the reasons that Chinese has stayed so stable over the past thousands of years. And expressions invented 3000 years ago are still in use.