To better understand Shakespeare

In Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale," a freaked out Hermione says to Leontes, "You speak a language that I understand not." People say the same about Shakespeare. I wish I had a play ticket for every time I've heard somebody say they struggle with the words.

Enter David Crystal. The author of "Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language" (1987) and "Pronouncing Shakespeare" (2005) lays out a nuts-and-bolts approach to Shakespeare in his new book, "Think on my Words" (Cambridge University Press, 254 pages, $19.99).

Crystal makes the case that the key to Shakespeare is how he manipulated language. He begins by knocking down some myths.

Like that story that there are still people tucked away in remote hamlets of the Appalachians speaking Elizabethan English. Anybody who believes this, Crystal writes, has, as Thersites says of Agamemnon, "not so much brains as ear-wax."

Then there's the myth that Shakespeare had "the largest vocabulary of any English writer." He's said to have used "20,000 different words" or "30,000 words." It depends on how you count. Do homonyms count as two? Compounds? Variants between texts, proper names, foreign words, onomatopoeic words, malapropisms?

Experts say there were about 150,000 different words in English at the and of the 16th century, versus more than 600,000 today. Crystal estimates that most educated people today can use about 50,000 words (doesn't that make you feel smart?).

There is the invention myth. This one holds that Shakespeare invented a large percentage of English words. This is tricky, but it's plausible that he invented 1,700 words, maybe, including such gems as "anthropophaginian." Impressive? Yes. Significant? Not so much.

There is the translation myth ("We need to translate him so we can understand").

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bill Rauch in a Wednesday discussion told of being asked who "translated" a lucid production of one of the plays.

Aside from losing the beauty (think of some Bible translations), there are issues of grammar and vocabulary. Crystal shows that only about 10 percent of Shakespeare's grammar is a problem for us, and 5 to 10 percent of his vocabulary ("fraughting" souls). So our effort is better spent learning some Elizabethan grammar and vocabulary.

There is the style myth. The plays and poems don't show a consistent "style," (whatever that is) which is what you'd expect of a body of work ranging from prose to poetry, farce to tragedy, over more than two decades.

Crystal says understanding the Bard's use of language is a three-stage deal: notice a feature, describe it, explain why it's there. Spotting a metaphor is not enough. And at some point linguistics gives way to literary criticism.

The legacy of Shakespeare, Crystal concludes, is not coinages (courtship) and idioms (salad days). It is a demonstration of the resources of a language used in original ways to serve the poetic imagination. There's been a lot of overblown shmontses written about such stuff. The difference is that Crystal goes about it nut by nut and bolt by bolt.

Invent stuff? Yup. Use parts of speech as other parts? Uh-huh. Stand meter norms and word-order on their heads? You bet. But most importantly, Shakespeare shows us how to dare to do the improbable with words. His work is a course in breaking the rules.

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