Ben Lowry: English language changed significantly in the century after Shakespeare

A 1738 News Letter
A 1738 News Letter

A striking difference between the language of Shakespeare and the language of the early Belfast News Letters (aside from the fact that one is literature and the other is not) is that the latter is much less alien to modern readers than the former.

One of the reasons I did not enjoy Shakespeare at all at school was that I could not understand it at a glance. It was hard work, and few teenage boys relish that.

The first News Letters, however, are a mere 121 years (1737) after the playwright died (1616). The English language must have standardised significantly in that time, and it has changed little since.

This, presumably, is due to the printing press. The King James Bible only appeared towards the end of William Shakespeare’s life.

Newspapers were almost non existent when he died but began to appear about 50 years later.

There were quite a few newspapers by the time the Belfast News Letter was launched by Francis Joy. We are not a uniquely early title – instead we are unique in that we have lasted so long.

This spread of the printed word greatly enlarged the number of people who could speak English and so explains the sudden change in the 1600s and early 1700s and the slower change thereafter.

I have a theory that the English language probably peaked around a century ago. Some of the written or spoken accounts of the Titanic sinking are beautifully crafted.

The current simplification of the language is not without drawbacks. Apostrophes and the word ‘that’ and other features of English that are being discarded make written expression that little bit less precise.

As an example of how the language was different in the early News Letters, but easy to understand, consider this sentence from August 1739:

We hear that the highwayman lately shot dead by the marquess of Graham, was a deserter from the foot guards, as was also his comrade who escap’d: they had robb’d the earl of Londonderry that morning. The night before the deceas’d made a visit to his mother, who is in an alms-house at Farnham, and gave her a guinea. There was found in his pockets about l7 [£1,300 in today’s money], a silver watch, several bullets, and mould for casting others.

Or the clarity of this, from the same paper:

They write from Vienna, that the plague still continues in Hungary, and that the Emperor had written letters to all the princes of the empire to assist him with men and money to enable him to carry on the war against the Turks.

As a teenager, I thought that Shakespeare plays were far too long. I still think his plays are flabby but those were the standards of the time.

He transcends any such minor flaws with his depth of insight into the human character. For example, some decent people – such as Jeremy Corbyn – still do not grasp the recurring wickedness in some other people, something Shakespeare understood in an instant and depicted in Caliban (the fallen figure in the Tempest, one of the plays that I struggled with at school).

Shakespeare’s language is beautiful too. I am a big sleeper and have savoured the following description of the joy of sleep since the elderly mother of a colleague of mine impressed me by reciting it off the top of her head:

Macbeth does murder sleep’, the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast

• Ben Lowry (a BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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