Shakespeare and 'Inventing New Words': The Greeks did it first
I’m an English teacher who has been raised to believe in the unique powers of Shakespeare. He was a genius, his output was immense and his stories continue to echo through all times and all places. Yet I discovered this week that one of the talents I most admired of Shakespeare (his ability to ‘make up’ words) is a skill which was being employed in Ancient Greece 2500 years ago!
What follows next is information I have picked up from John Taylor’s Greek Beyond GCSE which I only read this week and I think teachers of Shakespeare will be surprised:
1) Greek verse (e.g. the plays of Sophocles and Euripides) has its own vocabulary. To do the Classical Greek A-level, the examiners will assume that you will know 300 words of this vocabulary.
2) Vowels were commonly missed off the start of words - rive instead of arrive.
3) Double consonants were used at the start of a word - Ptolis instead of polis.
4) Vowels were turned into diphthongs - aloune instead of alone.
5) Vowels were lengthened - boook instead of book.
6) Simple rather that compound forms of verbs were used - strophe rather than catastrophe.
7) Letters were added or omitted when and where it was needed.
8) Compound words to express meaning were used - strong + luck (strongluck) = very lucky!
9) Paradoxical expressions were used - mother unmother (a mother that doesn’t show good maternal instincts).
10) Tmesis was used - abso-blooming-lutely.
As a lover of language, I find it fascinating that the Greek playwrights were so carefree with their language. Most of these decisions would have been dictated by the scansion of the text; decisions would have been made to fit the desired metrical pattern. However, the audience would have had to have been complicit in this wordplay and agreed to accept this vocabulary, otherwise the impact of the the plays would have been reduced.
This, of course, does not make Shakespeare any less brilliant. However, it does place him inside a wordplay tradition which was not started by him; he was merely an interior of this approach.
Shakespeare apparently knew ‘less Greek’, but perhaps he knew enough to feel confident that his own wordplay was more traditional than we tend to imagine.
This then leads to a discussion about ‘proper English’ and the use of slang, but that is a topic for another post.
In the meantime, English teachers, please tell your kids about the Greeks and their wordplay - they might identify with their own bending of the language to suit rhythm and beat and at the same time draw a line from themselves back to Euripides - and at the same time perhaps they will find a bit of Shakespeare in themselves.