Early Modern English vocabulary

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It is not surprising that one of the causes of the difficulties that many people have in reading, or seeing, the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The world has changed since the days pf Early Modern English - and new and reused words have arrived to talk about it. The New World itself (Columbus 'discovered' the Americas in 1492) stimulated new words, and introduced such names (from native American languages) along with the things they labelled, such as potato, tomato and tobacco. The 2nd edition (1989) of the OED contained over 291,500 entries (main entries: 231,100), and that number continues to rise in the 3rd edition: Crystal 2005 estimates, with many caveats, that "a total of at least a million [words in English] will seem rather small" (p. 455). He also says that "the English lexicon grew, during the the Early Modern English period, from 100,000 to 200,000 lexemes" (162), which in itself indicates the growth (doubling) in English words at the time. Beyond the sheer growth of English, some of our current difficulties with Shakespeare's vocabulary arise for understandable reasons: some are sketched here. (AWE cannot begin to give a comprehensive account.)

  • The technology of the time. Writers were familiar with horses, using words like 'jade', 'hackney' and 'roan Barbary' (names of horses) and items of horse equipment, like 'crupper' and 'caparisoned'. Early use of gunpowder (names of guns like 'bombard', 'demi-culverine' and 'saker') co-existed with the last use of personal armour ('greave', gauntlet' and 'beaver'), used to defend against hand-held weapons like 'falchion' and 'partisan'. At sea, the language of those who manned sailing ships ('mizzen', 'yare' and 'larboard') is lost to all but enthusiasts.
    • Related aspects of culture also are rarely known to us in the twenty-first century: armour, which hid the identity of its wearers, led to the development of heraldry, with its 'tinctures' (colours) and 'ordinaries' (standard conventional designs), like 'bendlets' and 'martlets'. In the theatres, 'the Heavens' was the name of the canopy over the open-air stage. A 'cockpit' (from 1568) was a place for fighting cocks (as a bearpit was for 'baiting' bears): in Henry V, Shakespeare explicitly links it to the part of a theatre which has been called 'the Pit' since 1649
Can this Cock-Pit hold
The vastie fields of France? Or may we cramme
Within this Woodden O, the very Caskes
That did affright the Ayre at Agincourt? (I. Prol. 11, 1599)
  • Some words are immediately comprehensible, though not immediately recognisable in the forms in which they were then used: we know 'Sir', but the form 'Sirrah' may give us pause; the verb 'will', in Shakespeare, is often closer to modern 'want' (the sub-title of Twelfth Night is What You Will, ~ 'whatever you like'). One term for horsemanship was the noun 'manage' (~ management).
  • Other words have changed their meanings more fundamentally. 'Fond' meant 'foolish', for example, and 'sophisticated' meant adulterated. In many dramatic texts, words were frequently contracted: the past tense -ed is often 'd. Naughty was a much stronger word then than now, meaning 'morally bad' or 'vicious', whereas currently now it is much more 'mischievous'. Nowadays, children are 'naughty'; then it was sinful adults. Changing structures of word formation also may help to disguise words: we still use 'abroad', and sailors still use 'aloft', but rarely 'afield' or 'abed'.
  • Fashions of the time were different. Who now cares for 'cross-gartering', or would wish "the tailor [to] make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for thy mind is a very opal"? (And note the archaic 'very' as a superlative for a noun.) And, in foodstuffs, who would consider a "wither'd apple-john"?

All these and the merest hint at the riches of changing vocabulary. You will find far more in any play - or other text - from the period. You are advised to read it in an edition with good notes. These will draw your attention to changed meanings, and the meanings of the unfamiliar words,

See also Early Modern English for an account of how this page contributes to the history of tha language in the period 1500-1700, and Verb-endings in older English for the changes inflections that Elizabethan, Jacobean and later writers used.
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