Shakespeare replaced by McWords

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“The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will announce next week that it has commissioned translations of all 39 of the Bard’s plays into modern English, with the idea of having them ready to perform in three years. Yes, translations—because Shakespeare’s English is so far removed from the English of 2015 that it often interferes with our own comprehension,” wrote a Columbia University linguist with the noteworthy name John McWhorter in the Sept. 25 Wall Street Journal. We have McMansions, McChurches, and McJobs. Now we have McWords to replace Shakespeare’s luminous vocabulary, prescribed by a Prof. McWorder.

William Shakespear
William Shakespeare

This is an act of cultural treason, as foul as the Islamic State’s willful destruction of the ruins of Palmyra. If we lose the capacity to consider what words mean as we use them, we lobotomize speech. If we stop inventing new words, we forget what the old ones meant to begin with. Language lives on neologism, and Shakespeare was the most prolific inventor of new words in the history of English. His listeners did not know what many of his words meant until they heard them, but they kept coming to his plays.

McWhorter’s “translators,” to be sure, propose to alter only a small fraction of Shakespeare’s words—a “revolutionary 10% translation”—in the cause of comprehension. He cites this example from Macbeth:

Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off.

Muses McWhorter, “This sounds like the English we speak, but what does it mean to ‘bear one’s faculties;? Or to be ‘clear’ in one’s office? And why would there be damnation in Duncan’s ‘taking off’? Taking off where? To lunch? Here is that same brief passage as rendered by a teacher named Conrad Spoke, who produced what he calls a “revolutionary 10% translation” in the interest of “allowing every student to make contact with the original text”:

Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne authority so meek, hath been

So pure in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his knocking-off.

They seem like trivial substitutions, for example, the usage of “The Sopranos” (knock off) for that of the Elizabethans (take off). But it is the thin end of a fat wedge, with awful implications for our ability to think while we speak.

Language is metaphor. Why does “knock off” mean to kill while “knock over” means to rob, “knock out” means to render unconscious, “knock down” to disassemble, “knock around” mean to wander aimlessly and “knock up” mean to impregnate? Popular language loves to reinvent itself. To “take off” in Shakespeare’s time meant to remove, not quite the same as to “knock off” in Al Capone’s, but we comprehend it for the same reason we comprehend the terms “knock off,” “bump off,” “rub out,” and so forth. We have minds, and our minds understand the meaning of metaphors. There is no logical formula, to be sure, by which we construct a new meaning by joining a simple verb to a preposition: we refer to a spatial concept to alter the verb’s meaning, and make sense of it upon reflection. The reflection yields delight: we get the joke.

The academy fossilizes the metaphors of the past, and in retaliation, popular speech invents new ones. In the popular idiom: Prof. McWhorter f—d up by f—ing around with Shakespeare, and should f— off. We understand the meaning of the preceding sentence quite well, because the poetic faculty of our mind understands that the preposition “up” completes an action, while “off” sends its meaning in a different direction. Shakespeare’s metaphors, to be sure, function at a loftier level, but the principle is the same.

At the birth of the English language, not only popular speech, but also the literary language had no fear of invention. Writers reveled in neologisms and their public understood them perfectly well. Shakespeare was father, mother and midwife to the English language. His new words rang true in poetic context because the Bard employed them in a certain way. He did not simply draw upon the popular usage of his day, but in many ways invented it, adding 1,700 words to the English language. A partial list of common phrases bequeathed to us by Shakespeare can be found here, and a list of words he brought into common usage is linked here. A 2014 BBC feature cites some of the many modern expressions we learned from the Bard:

If you’ve ever been ‘in a pickle’, waited ‘with bated breath’, or gone on ‘a wild goose chase’, you’ve been quoting from The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet respectively.

Next time you refer to jealousy as “the green-eyed monster,” know that you’re quoting Othello’s arch villain, Iago. (Shakespeare was almost self-quoting here, having first touched on green as the color of envy in The Merchant of Venice, where Portia alludes to “green-eyed jealousy.”)

Allow yourself to “gossip” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and you’re quoting him. “The be-all and end-all” is uttered by Macbeth as he murderously contemplates King Duncan, and “fair play” falls from Miranda’s lips in The Tempest.

Verb-and-preposition combinations reveal the Germanic roots of English. To set up can mean to erect, as “auf-setzen” does in German. But a “setup” in English usually means a trap, while an “Aufsatz” in German is an essay, or composition. These are different metaphors drawn from the same building-blocks. But where do we get the English word “compose”? From the Latin ponere, to place, and com-, or with—to put things together. Few English-speakers know enough Latin to appreciate the original metaphor that formed the word. German, which reveals the building-blocks of complex words more readily, makes meaning more transparent and lends itself more readily to neologisms.

We have a vast English vocabulary because someone, sometime had the wit to invent new words. Where does Prof. McWhorter think that our words came from in the first place? Did Martians drop a dictionary from a flying saucer?

The language that offends McWhorter includes this speech by Edmund in “King Lear:”

Why “bastard”? Wherefore “base”?

When my dimensions are as well compact,

My mind as generous, and my shape as true

As honest madam’s issue?

McWhorter objects, “Isn’t it odd for someone to present being ‘well compact’ as a selling point? But for Shakespeare, compact meant “constructed.” And why would Edmund defend himself against the charge of illegitimacy by noting his generosity? Because in Shakespeare’s day, generous could mean “noble.” Nor did madam then have the shady connotation that it does today.”

That is nonsense. Com-pact – “put together” – is as understandable on the face of it today as it was when Shakespeare wrote “Lear.” “Generous” did not mean “noble,” contrary to McWorder, but rather “expansive.” One assumes that modern audiences have heard the word “madam” in contexts other than the sex trade. If they can’t figure this one out, a “translation” into modern English isn’t going to help them.

Anglo-Saxonisms are more transparent than Latinisms, which is why popular neologisms invariably employ Anglo Saxon roots. George Orwell, the defender of language against stale convention and political subversion, instructed: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”

But it is not so simple. English bears a Latin vocabulary atop a Germanic base. The Norman invasion imposed a French aristocracy upon a Saxon peasantry. The peasants raised pigs and sheep and cows, and their lords ate pork and mutton and beef. The English words for the meat as opposed to the animal simply are the French words for the animal, but the distinction stuck, and neither can nor should be undone. The elevated vocabulary of the English language requires words derived from Latin. Although Orwell’s advice is sound, there are many occasions when the writer must resort to Latinisms.

That is the blessing as well as the curse of the English language. Whereas German retains the inherent transparency of complex words built from simple ones, English draws on its historic inheritance, with over a quarter of a million words in current use, according to the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary. The total number of English words, including disused and rarely used ones, is about 600,000. German by contrast has 300,000 words in all and 75,000 in use. Spanish vocabulary is much smaller, at about 100,000 words (with 80,000 in the authoritative dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy vs. 350,000 entries in the Oxford English dictionary).

Prof. McWhorter otherwise is a defender of the viability of Black English (sometimes called Ebonics) as “a coherent, consistent and complex kind of English, just like all kinds of English are.” I would agree that Ebonics has some utility; some years ago I translated some of Martin Heidegger’s precepts into Ebonics, in the belief that they are more easily understood in that dialect than in the original German. But to assign to Black English a coherence and complexity to compare with Shakespeare’s distends the lunatic boundaries of political correctness.

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David P. Goldman
David Paul Goldman (born September 27, 1951) is an American economist, music critic, and author, best known for his series of online essays in the Asia Times under the pseudonym Spengler. Goldman sits on the board of Asia Times Holdings.