Thursday, 28 April 2016

Thinking Makes It So

Alyssa Vratsanos on Shakespeare and Language

A painting by Alyssa’s favourite post-impressionist, Vincent van Gogh

William Shakespeare: a name so often heard fall casually from the lips of your average intellectual (and certainly pseudo-intellectual) type. Shakespeare is revered in literary circles as some kind of deity, a purveyor of all that is right with English and its literature. Abrasive ignorance, bad grammar, ill manners, American brashness, and general uncouthness are nothing a spot of Hamlet can’t cure.

But only a true enthusiast of the Bard will know that Shakespeare was anything but a traditionalist, let alone a language prescriptivist. He was as linguistically irreverent as Doctor Seuss. The way he used and manipulated the English language is something to behold. Granted, he did a great many phenomenal things with his talents, but for me – as a linguist-in-training – it seems only fitting to commemorate the man with a tribute to his use of language.

I was always the first person to correct a person’s use of “their”/“there”/“they’re,” and argue in favour of the Oxford comma, but that’s not what language is in essence. It’s not an unchangeable bit of software that gets uploaded to our brains, nor is it a code of rules we dare not break. We created language to do our bidding, so to speak, and so it is only fitting that we reshape it as needed to suit our surroundings. Shakespeare, with his unorthodox syntax and invented idioms, was just doing what people have been doing since the utterance of the first meaningful syllable.

I admire him because he saw no limits in what he could do with, and therefore to, the language. He set the scene for future writers to be innovative and disregard what is correct or proper. Will was doing all of this before the likes of E.E. Cummings and Allen Ginsberg made it cool. He is the founding father of hipsterdom: the epitome of forward-thinking ingenuity (with a beard and funky earring to boot), long before all the other kids were doing it. Shakespeare’s irreverence for the rules of English has always stuck out for me in stark contrast to the stuffy old academic types who taught him to me at university.

Shakespeare is not the catalyst for stiff-upper-lipped grammar nazism, he is the antidote.

Alyssa Vratsanos is an Honours student in Linguistics at the University of the Witwatersrand.


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