Sections

Services

Information

UK United Kingdom

Shakespeare had fewer words, but doper rhymes, than rappers

New York-based data scientist and designer Matt Daniels recently noted Shakespeare’s much touted vast vocabulary and charted how many different words Shakespeare used in comparison to contemporary hip-hop…

Is using a vast vocabulary such a good thing anyway? Candice Albach/ Raul Pacheco Vega

New York-based data scientist and designer Matt Daniels recently noted Shakespeare’s much touted vast vocabulary and charted how many different words Shakespeare used in comparison to contemporary hip-hop artists. It turns out that a good handful of rappers use a greater vocabulary than Shakespeare did, for the same sized block of lyrics.

Daniels doesn’t draw the conclusion that today’s rappers are more creative and poetic than Shakespeare, but the implication hovers.

It’s true that admirers of Shakespeare have often celebrated the sheer size of the vocabulary he used in his works. There’s a paragraph in the introduction to the current Norton Shakespeare which does exactly this.

Looking further back, a century and a half ago the philologist Max Müller contrasted the 300 words used by a rural labourer with the 3,000 of the educated person of his day and the 15,000 of Shakespeare’s. It seemed natural that the pre-eminent creative writer in the Western tradition should also have the largest vocabulary ever known, something suitably prodigious and extraordinary.

But in an age of data claims such as these are bound to be tested, and two separate studies, one in a book on stylistics (2011), and one in a Shakespeare journal (also from 2011), have now shown that, when you compare like with like, Shakespeare does not in fact have a very large vocabulary.

If you take six plays by Shakespeare and six plays by one of his contemporaries, the number of different words used in Shakespeare’s plays is no larger, and often smaller, than in the others. Shakespeare does not introduce any more new words in successive plays than his rivals do.

Meg

The myth of Shakespeare’s prodigious vocabulary

There are three obvious reasons why the myth of Shakespeare’s huge vocabulary had such a grip, and lasted so long: his celebrity as an author, already mentioned; the number of his plays that have survived, reflecting both his productivity and the efforts made to preserve his plays after his death; and the fact that whereas there are many good ways of estimating his vocabulary from concordances and good complete editions, the same was not true for his peers.

Shakespeare was just better documented and his vocabulary was easier to measure.

But the end of the myth does not leave Shakespeare diminished. It just makes you think about whether using a vast vocabulary is such a good thing anyway.

After all, writing with incessant new and different words can be quite hard to read or listen to. This may work well when the writer wants to depict an unfamiliar world like the civilisation of a remote planet (science fiction) or an underground, secret organisation (gangster fiction) but not with a domestic comedy, or an imaginary dialogue between two people who know each other well.

Does vocabulary size really matter?

So many of Shakespeare’s memorable lines are not based on fancy vocabulary:

To be or not to be …
All the world’s a stage …
Some are born great …
Shall I compare thee …

It looks as though it is what a writer does with words, rather than how many different words they cram into a speech or a song, that matters.

All the world’s a stage. Michelle Carl

In fact, it may be that what is remarkable about Shakespeare’s language is not its outlandishness but how close it is to the overall standard of the language of his time, as another numbers-based analysis suggests.

So what is it that fascinates people about vocabulary size? It seems to offer a neat quantitative measure for literary quality. But this does not stand up to scrutiny.

The good thing about busting the Shakespeare vocabulary myth is that we can now avoid that particular dead-end in working out what makes his use of language so remarkable and explore more promising ones, such as the abundance and creativity of his metaphors, and his ear for the turns of ordinary speech.

As for the rappers graphic, it is interesting to compare the word use of the different artists. Although, as one of the busters of the Shakespeare vocabulary myth Ward Elliott pointed out to me, it’s not fair to put the Wu-Tang Clan on the same scale as individual rappers, as combining different writers will always make for a larger overall vocabulary.

But all in all we have lots to learn from bringing quantification to the study of the language of writers. Just as long as we don’t confuse vocabulary size with literary quality.

Articles also by This Author

Sign in to Favourite

Join the conversation

23 Comments sorted by

  1. Claire Hansen

    PhD Candidate, Casual Lecturer & Tutor at University of Sydney

    Thanks for this article. Your suggestion of turning a focus 'to the abundance and creativity of his metaphors' got me thinking about whether one could attempt to quantify the number of metaphors, perhaps in comparison with contemporaries - although I know given the complexity of metaphors that's probably quite difficult.

    report
    1. Hugh Craig

      Professor of English at University of Newcastle

      In reply to Claire Hansen

      Thanks for your comment. It would be very interesting to see if Shakespeare uses more metaphors per x words than his peers. There has been some work done on detecting metaphors automatically, not sure how successful. Metaphors can be buried and hardly noticeable, marked but commonplace, or strikingly novel, and all that might come into a proper look at writers' use of them. I'm sure this will all happen before too long!

      report
  2. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    thanks for this essay & for making the case for quality over quantity. john willinsky in "empire of words: the reign of the oed" (princeton, 1994) points out there are a number words in that dictionary - hapax legomena - which have only one citation and that one citation is from shakespeare.

    how many unique (in the old high sense of the term) words have these rappers coined? just saying. -a.v.

    report
    1. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to alfred venison

      "in the old high sense of the term"

      I take it you don't listen to much rap then Alfred? There is a long history of old privileged people dismissing the culture of youth or poverty or otherness, only for the next generation of old privileged people to appropriate it and the following generations to hold it as the "highest" of culture, much better than that stuff the young people listen to. Do you think even Shakespeare was treated with the same reverence as now in his own time?

      You could fill a book with the vocabulary of rap, but that doesn't even begin to describe its relevance to the people who listen and appreciate.

      report
    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public secotr)

      In reply to Mike Cowley

      no dude, i listen, and i'm not dimissing it. you misunderstand me if you think i'm talking about "high art" & "low art". i'm not referring to rap, its music or its lyrics, when i say "unique (in the old high sense of the word)" - i'm referring to the misuse of the word "unique", in our times, to mean some kind of “extra-special”, rather than “one & only” as it used to.

      there are a certain limited number of words in the oed that are known to have shakespeare as their *only* - unique - source.

      they may use more words than shakespeare did, but my question is simply how many words have rappers added to the dictionary that can be sourced *exclusively* - that is to say *uniquely* - to them? are you saying, there is a rapper who has coined a word or two that made it into the dictionary & that only he used? -a.v.

      report
    3. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to alfred venison

      My apologies for misreading what you meant by high. Dude :-)

      I don't know that there exists a rapper who has coined a term that made it into the OED, so I wouldn't want to make that claim. I don't know how often neologisms are correctly attributed in the first place for that matter, in Shakespeare's time or in ours, but that's a side issue.

      I'd probably dispute that creating new words is as "important" as the creative use of words both neo and retro (for at least my own sense of what's important), but I'll happily admit I was defending something you were not attacking and withdraw my attempt to paint you as a fogey.

      report
    4. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Mike Cowley

      no worries dude;-) yes, they're words of dubious value. according to willinsky the oed editors just sort of took a shakespeare lexicon, tipped the whole thing into their dictionary and left all the words there, whether or not they have been used by anyone else since the bard. i agree, creating new words - retro or neo - is less impressive than combining existing ones strikingly. but i am a fogey about the "correct" use of "unique", eh? cheers! -a.v.

      report
    5. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to alfred venison

      Alfred, maybe it's the hat that had me thinking fogey? :-P Anyway, if you are it own it I always say.....

      report
  3. Tina Ryan

    logged in via Twitter

    Vocabulary is generally used as an indicator of IQ. But when it comes to literary creativity, the issue of prodigious verses sparse vocabulary is irrelevant.

    As in Sylvia Plath's "Daddy"

    You do not do, you do not do
    Any more, black shoe

    report
    1. Tina Ryan

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tina Ryan

      sorry spelling 'verses' should be 'versus'

      report
  4. Megan Creighton

    Librarian

    'And the native hue of resolution, is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought...'

    report
  5. Laurie Strachan

    Writer/photgrapher

    "It seemed natural that the pre-eminent creative writer in the Western tradition should also have the largest vocabulary ever known."

    Why? The world's vocabularies are increasing in size all the time. It's ridiculous to suggest that a writer in the 16th century would have access to as many different words as we, and the rappers, do. It's what you do with them that counts.

    Reducing everything to numbers is nonsense. Shakespeare was a great writer because of how he thought, and the ideas he expressed, not the number of words he used.

    "The implication hovers".

    If you really believe for as much as a millisecond that rappers make more profound comments about the human condition than Shakespeare did then I feel sorry for you.

    report
    1. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Laurie Strachan

      "If you really believe for as much as a millisecond that rappers make more profound comments about the human condition than Shakespeare did then I feel sorry for you."

      I think it might be you who needs a little sympathy. So much snobbish condescension must be coming from a place of pain. There there.

      report
    2. Laurie Strachan

      Writer/photgrapher

      In reply to Mike Cowley

      Ah, how I suffer!

      Perhaps you could tell me where my "place of pain" is? Perhaps I should be listening to Eminem? Perhaps you're just an idiot?

      report
    3. Mike Cowley

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Laurie Strachan

      That's right Laurie. Eminem = all rappers and anyone with a different opinion to you = idiot.

      report
  6. Tim Allman

    Medical Software Developer

    So quality != quantity. Go figure.

    report
  7. Peter Horan

    Retired

    From a recent New Scientist article (21 April 2014) "Shakespeare: Unleashing a tempest in the brain", which also referenced the analysis by the article's author, Professor Craig:

    "It was an idea that motivated [literature professor and psychologist] Davis and [neuroscientist] Thierry's collaboration. They concentrated on a characteristic feature of Shakespeare's style – his extensive use of "functional shift", changing the grammatical class of words to fit his purposes. When Iago is convincing Othello of his wife Desdemona's infidelity, for example, he tells him "'tis the spite of hell... to lip a wanton in a secure couch", lasciviously replacing the verb "kiss" with the noun "lip" while using "wanton", an adjective, as a noun. "Other Elizabethan writers used the device, too, but Shakespeare was addicted to it," says Thierry."

    I am sure it is not just "functional shift", but also metaphor, word rhythm etc. etc.

    report
  8. John McKeon
    John McKeon is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Teacher (of English; to Refugees)

    Someone on the radio (ABC of course) recently told us that Shakespeare understood and made good use of the art of rhetoric, which I understood to be the art of good word choice and good rhythm (and no clutter).

    Ah, those ancient Greek playwrights ...

    report