Tag Archives: language

william shakespeare

Why William Shakespeare Still Matters.

By: Chris Warren

All languages are orphans. What I mean is that none of them can trace their pedigree back to any single source or person. There is an exception: English, specifically, the version of it spoken today. While it is technically true that no one “invented” the English language, the way English speakers express themselves would be very different but for the works of William Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago this month and coincidentally was also born in April.

Shakespeare was respected in his time, yet he was not particularly well known outside of London and was not recognized as a literary giant until well after his death when scholars revisited his work in the early 1800s. By the late 1800s he was a bona fide legend; starting in the 1900s  and extending until now, William Shakespeare has been a major component of high school literature courses and there are entire college degree programs dedicated exclusively to him.

A lot of information about William Shakespeare’s personal life is missing. His exact birthday is unknown, and no one living today is even sure what he looked like. He never sat for a direct formal portrait; the familiar pictures of him were created from second hand descriptions given by people who knew him. Shakespeare’s unintentionally mysterious life adds to the intrigue and legacy of his writing.

His words are reflections in a literary mirror reaching out across the centuries.

So why should modern day people like us care about the ideas of some scribe who’s been dead for four centuries? After all, we live in the internet age where trends and fads can have a shelf life of just a few hours, sometimes less.

Pop culture trends are indeed ephemeral. Four hundred years from now, no one is going to care about Kim Kardashian’s tweets. Shakespeare did not say things for the purpose of being popular or seizing a moment. He spoke of anger, jealousy, love, hate, sadness, joy, sorrow and every other possible emotion in a way that is ageless.

Because William Shakespeare’s language of emotion is universal, we can find ourselves in passages from Romeo & Juliet or Othello or any of the other plays & sonnets. His words are reflections in a literary mirror reaching out across the centuries. Anyone who even casually studies Shakespeare will eventually arrive at that moment of enlightenment when they exclaim to themselves, “Hey! He’s talking about me!”

It’s exciting to read literature from so long ago and feel as if the author knew us personally. William Shakespeare created a magic formula of words that never becomes obsolete because culture constantly changes but the human condition does not. Anger is the same as it was in the late 1500s. So is love, jealousy, and all the rest. Shakespeare took what is common to all people across all ages and gave it a voice.

Interpreting emotion with such startling permanence would alone have made William Shakespeare the Greatest of the Great, but he did not end it there. He wrote 37 plays and 154 sonnets and from that body of work came thousands of words and phrases that we contemporary English speakers use every day without realizing their origins.

No single person has contributed anywhere near as much to the English vocabulary. If we removed all remnants of Shakespeare’s endowment to English, it would be immensely less diverse and would arguably not be the globally dominant language it is today. No other language has so many ways to express the same idea, and William Shakespeare is one of the reasons why.

Shakespeare does not make Shakespeare great. Humanity makes Shakespeare great. We, us, supplied the raw materials. All he did was identify the greatness and provide the conduit that converts it into language.

There is a little bit of William Shakespeare in every statement you utter and every sentence you read, as well as every feeling and emotion you experience. For sure, Shakespeare did not invent the the English language, but his literary DNA is inextricably woven into it in a way no one else’s is. That’s why no one can get away from him even if they don’t know him. That’s why Shakespeare still matters.


The Etymology of Eleven.

By: Chris Warren.

I was scrolling through my daily reads and was pleasantly surprised to discover that my good blogging neighbor Hugh over at Hughes Views & News honored me on his website! In his very flattering shout out he asked, “I’m hoping (Twenty First Summer ) will write a post about why the number 11 is not pronounced onety one?” I’m certain that was not a question for which Hugh expects a real answer, but I’m going to take on the job and give him –and everyone– a real answer because etymology does not get nearly enough emphasis in modern schools. That’s unfortunate, because if it did, we’d have a much more literate population.

Answering Hugh’s question requires a little backtracking to why 11 is not expressed as “one-teen” (the same idea applies to the number 12). Today we use a number system based on 10, but in post-Roman empire Europe, the number system was based on 12. That there is no -teen suffix for the next two numbers after ten is a leftover still surviving in modern English.

In Old English, the terms enleofan and tweleofan literally meant “one and two leftover” (from ten), respectively. The words eleven and twelve are their direct descendants. The teen numbers begin the next cycle. The modern suffix -teen, by the way, has origins in various forms in several early European languages and means “more than ten”.

That’s the quickie two paragrpah answer to Hugh’s challenge. The bigger matter beyond his quip is why etymology and its cousin, linguistics, are obscure sub-specialties that even most college English departments don’t take very seriously. These topics should be regular curriculum starting in kindergarten.

Most people learn words one by one (remember those dreaded vocabulary words in grade school?). It’s effective for what it is, but not very efficient. If instead one learns the original roots and fragments, then knowing all the words that come from them will become second nature.


Words that are related by etymology to the same root or have a commonality between languages are known as cognates. People with large vocabularies seldom attain such a high level of fluency by memorizing words one by one, as if reading a dictionary. They learn the various parts and pieces of words, then stick them together to make full words, or cognates. They may also go in reverse by reducing a cognate down to its origin to come up with a meaning.

A root term can have dozens of cognates, so it is much more effective to learn one root and extrapolate it out than learn each variation of the word individually. This is why learning cognates is stressed in foreign language courses. There is also such a thing as false cognates, but that discussion will have to wait for another day.


Now that we’ve humored Hugh and dipped our toes into the deep end of the language pool, the real question is, “How can one expand their literacy with etymology?” The answer isn’t complicated, but does require some effort and dedication.

First, do a lot of reading, preferably at or just above your reading level so you will be challenged. When you come to a word you don’t know, look it up in an etymological dictionary (yes, such a thing exists!). Take a moment to study the fragments and roots of the word as opposed to only the word as a whole. When you come across another word with the same components, try to derive the meaning based on what you know about the etymology of the term. Second, make an effort to use the new words you learn in your written and spoken interpersonal communications. Remember, context counts!

I know this all sounds tedious and slow, but with practice, you will be amazed at how fast your fluency and skill increases. The more you do it, the more seamless the process will become. The benefit is threefold: Larger vocabulary, greater reading comprehension, more effective interpersonal communications. Whether you are a high school student, a multi-degreed scholar, or a small time blogger (like me!), anyone can better themselves with etymology.

Regrettably, the day when etymology and linguistics are taught to grade schoolers is not on the horizon. Until then, I feel like one tiny little voice trying to convince others that obscure English department sub-specialties are worth the effort it takes to learn on your own.

Thanks for asking, Hugh! I hope my answer leaves you and everyone in a better place.