Hamlet: A Verse Translation

ISBN-13 9780983637929
Full Measure Press

Is Shakespeare Speaking a Foreign Language?

No. The traditional distinction between dialect and language involves the fuzzy but still useful measure referred to as mutual intelligibility. Could people speaking these two dialects after a period of adjustment hold a conversation on a range of topics?

If we could speak directly to Elizabethans, we would no doubt find their accent unusual. Because we lack recordings of people born within even two hundred years of that time, we can only approximate what they may have sounded like (learn about David and Ben Crystal's efforts to recreate it), and it would surely be an accent that is now extinct. But since accents tend to differ from each other in rather systematic ways, we would soon catch on.

In actual conversation, misunderstandings and requests for repeated information would certainly abound. But, unlike a Shakespeare play, where audience members must remain in passive silence and soon long for a chance to regroup at the intermission, the speakers would, through paraphrase and negotiation, find a way around the differences and get meaning across with much more facility than an English speaker and a Dutch speaker would. Slang would be a problem, but sociolinguistic research suggests that people sense when they are using slang, the language of insiders, and can, if friendly and motivated to do so, adjust their vocabulary to accommodate an outsider.

Intelligibility would be mutual though not perfect. Conversation would certainly be more tiring. The 2000 most frequent words we use today were pretty much available during Shakespeare's day. But the shades of meaning for most of them have altered, so we would have to concentrate hard to pick up these meanings and avoid misunderstandings. We would have difficulty following a conversation we were not participating in.

The less frequent vocabulary would be a major hurdle. Thousands of words that we comfortably use today would be gibberish to Shakespeare's ears. English was undergoing an intense period of borrowing that would continue for several hundred more years, adding an academic, elevated vocabulary from European languages. Shakespeare might know about 60% of this vocabulary but not enough to process this sentence very well: "Obviously, I am still adjusting to your culture." Shakespeare might have thought you were saying in an unidiomatic, though poetic, way, "By standing in your way, I am correcting the way you tend your fields." Well, probably not, but the meaning and function of this borrowed vocabulary was not yet settled, so academic, analytical discussions would be a challenge.

Despite the thousands of differences, conversation would proceed with much greater ease across a range of topics than if Shakespeare were speaking a foreign language or a more distant variety of English.

Kent Richmond


To get an accurate sense of how Shakespeare's plays would have seemed to an Elizabethan audience more familiar w ith Shakespeare's dialect, try one of my Enjoy Shakespeare translations. They include all the lines from the original play and maintain the exact verse structure that Shakespeare used. They are every bit as complex as the original and read like serious literature.