January 29, 2016

Words of the Month - Do You Even Know How to Vocab?

        I am in the midst of five days of guest teaching 20 classes worth of eighth graders about why Shakespeare’s language is the way it is, and how they can get the gist of it - and the fun of it - more easily.  I get very excited about this stuff, although oddly enough, your average eighth grader doesn’t get as fired up about historical grammar as I do!  But one of the things I realized as I was putting together my program, is that in some ways today’s middle schoolers have more in common with Shakespeare than just about any generation in between.  Shakespeare lived at a time when English was being exuberantly manipulated in all sorts of new and eloquent ways, and so it is for today’s generation.
        One of the ways Shakespeare loved to manipulate language was to shift around what parts of speech a word could be used as.  Here are some of his examples.
        In Cymbeline he writes, “to the court I’ll knock her back, foot her home again,” in which a noun is used as the verb you might do with that noun.
        In Sonnet XVIII he writes, “And every fair from fair sometimes declines… nor lose possession of that fair though ow’st,” in which the same adjective “fair” is used first to mean a fair person, then a nice normal adjective, and then the noun fairness.
        In Sonnet CXXX he writes, “any she belied with false compare,” in which a pronoun is used as a noun.
        In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he writes, “I do estate unto Demetrius,” in which a noun is used as a verb that might be done to that noun.
        In Macbeth he writes, “this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine,” in which an adjective is used as a verb.
        When we got a new vacuum cleaner for Christmas, I noticed that it said on the box, “A vacuum for every breed of dirty,” in which an adjective is used as a noun.  Is this bad grammar?  Well, yes, it is… And interestingly, the French and Spanish tag lines also printed on the box used the correct nouns, not adjectival forms.  But Shakespeare wouldn’t have seen anything wrong with this.  For one thing, there was no one to tell him it was wrong.  English grammar wasn’t taught in English schools until 1650 (and even then it was taught only as a base from which to teach Latin, not out of any idea of correcting the way people spoke their own tongue.)  For another thing, Shakespeare lived at a period when speakers of English were flexing their linguistic muscles and feeling that anything was possible.
        So why are we suddenly seeing many of these same characteristics in the English language today?  Imagine a new technology that allows more people than ever before to share their words with more people, over a wider area than ever before, breaking down many barriers of wealth and education…  I could be talking about the internet and social media revolution, but I could just as well be talking about the invention of the printing press which had contributed to the revolution in language that came to its tipping point quite abruptly when Shakespeare was just about exactly the age these eighth graders are now.
        Here are some recent manipulations of language that I’ve collected in the past couple of months.
     Think different.  (One of the first of the trend?  In which an adjective is used for an adverb.)
     Because reasons.  (In which a noun stands in for an entire phrase with subject, verb, and all.)
     I’ll science the heck out of you!  (In which a noun is used for a verb.)
     You can’t handle the crazy.  (In which an adjective is used for a noun.)
     Do you even know how to Christmas?  (In which a noun is used for a verb.)
        Yes, they’re grammatically incorrect, and as a language user it’s always better to know the rules before you break them, to manipulate deliberately instead of messing up accidentally.  But in these examples, people have broken the rules because it catches our attention, because it seems to have a slightly different connotation than the correct version would, because it’s funny, because it makes us think about the words in a new way.  And those are all reasons that Shakespeare did the same thing.

[Pictures: Burning the Midnight Oil, steel engraving by Steven Noble (Image from stevennoble.com);
Shakespeare in winter, illustration in a woodcut style by Michael Custode (Image from custode.com).]

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