Shapiro on Shakespeare’s vocabulary

I only finished the Greenblatt book this morning, but went straight onto another Shakespeare study. Here’s an interesting passage (the book it refers to by Crystal is Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language):

No less groundless is the argument that Shakespeare’s vocabulary was far greater than someone with only a grammar-school education could have possessed. As David Crystal, the leading expert on Shakespeare’s language, has shown, the myth that ‘Shakespeare had the largest vocabulary of any English writer’ is hard to dispel. Impressive claims are often tossed about, such as that Shakespeare used as many as thirty-thousand different words. It’s true if you count variants (both ‘cat’ and ‘cats’, or ‘say’ and ‘says’); otherwise, his vocabulary was about twenty thousand words. It’s a sizeable figure but not all that surprising, given the vast range of subjects treated in his plays and poems as well as how much of his work survives (the complete Works runs to just under nine hundred thousand words). Crystal also notes that ‘most of us use at least 50,000 words’ out of the roughly one million that are available in English today – and yet few of us with working vocabularies twice Shakespeare’s can boast of having written anything of the order of Romeo and Juliet.

James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare? pp. 312-3.

Update: Shapiro offers a critical take on the new film Anonymous, here.

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