Advancing the Word Field of Blood, Crime and Murder. Shakespeare's Lexical Innovation in Macbeth

Early Modern English

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

24 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Lexis in the Early Modern English period
2.1 The expanding lexicon
2.2 Shakespeare and the OED

3. Word formation in Macbeth
3.1 Compounding
3.2 Derivation
3.3 Conversion

4. Neologisms in the word field of blood, crime and murder

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Online References

1. Introduction

People often see inventiveness in a language as just a matter of creating new words. But it is much more than this. It is also a matter of creating new senses from existing words. Shakespeare, evidently does both. (Crystal, 2008: 164)

When dealing with language in the Early Modern English period, there is hardly any way around the exploration of Shakespeare's works and his innovative lexical creativity. Not only is Shakespeare known for being one of the most productive writers of his time, he is also responsible for coining a number of lexical variations that still stick with us today. His gift for elevating the ordinary through lexical innovation and rhetoric ingenuity is the reason why his reputation as a pioneer of English literature and language remains unchallenged today (Kolentstis 2019: 20).

His universally accepted importance as a contributor to the English language has already caused many authors to analyse his works thoroughly, however, the vastness of his linguistic innovations still invites us to further examine these neologisms in terms of their function and meaning. By doing so, certain questions arise: What are the common patterns he used in order to create linguistic variety? Why did he invent specific expressions and what is their conveyed sense? What is the effect on the audience or reader? This paper aims to answer these questions, exemplary focusing on Shakespeare's language and coinages in Macbeth. The play, which Shakespeare presumably wrote between 1605 and 1611, invites us to witness the tragic story of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and the characters' murderous actions and state of mind. Macbeth is a tragic story of vicious murder and cold-blooded crime. From the linguistic perspective, it bears evidence to a respectable amount of coined words1, many of which are presumably generated to support this main theme and central motive of the play: blood, murder and crime. It is this recurrent theme that shapes, on the one hand, the ubiquitous motive throughout the whole play, and on the other hand appears to be a major desideratum where Shakespeare enhanced the vocabulary in order to fully express the scheming and tragic line of action.

The analysis will be led by a brief introduction to the Early Modern English period and the lexical situation of that time in order to understand the historical background and circumstances that influenced lexical innovation in Shakespearean plays. Furthermore, the role of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as a tool to locate, identify and analyse Shakespearean coinages will be discussed. This will be followed by a linguistic analysis of Shakespeare's coinages, based on the example of Macbeth. The analysis will focus on his three major word formation strategies: compounding, derivation and conversion. Eventually, the final chapter shall discuss the function of Shakespeare's lexical inventions in the play: What is the conveyed atmosphere? Where and in what situation do they occur and what effect do they create? The main question shall be in how far they advance the word field of blood, crime and murder and contribute to the tragic line of action.

2. Lexis in the Early Modern English period

2.1 The expanding lexicon

Before we can deal with Shakespeare's coinages in greater detail, we must encounter the historical circumstances and occurrences that have accompanied the increase in vocabulary in order to fully understand the lexical situation in the Early Modern English period. Several cultural, social and political influences have affected linguistic processes and initiated the English language to change and develop, which will be examined in this chapter. The focus will be on the expanding lexicon and the role of Shakespeare in the OED in that matter.

Historically speaking, the Early Modern English period can roughly be classified into a timeframe from 1500 to 1700, marking an era of exceptional vocabulary growth and increasing standardisation of English and literacy. It was only by the end of the fifteenth century when the English language was leading towards a standard variety like we understand it today, mainly affected by the introduction of the printing press through William Caxton in 1476 (Crystal 2004: 255). Prior to this, classical languages like Greek and Latin dominated the domains of church, science and administration while the use of English was mainly restricted to oral communication, spreading into several regional varieties and lacking defined grammatical unity. Reading and writing was performed by the clergy, leaving a large part of English speaking people illiterate (Leech, Svartvik 2016: 49). With the Reformation as another influential occurrence, the English language started to induce to the fields of church, law and science. Spreading the written word through the printing press and now also demanded by a broader circle within the population, the production and reception of written English intensified (ibid.).

Slowly, the attitude towards English shifted from exclusive oral use to the claim of written domains, forming a competitor to its classical predecessors. The developing devotedness towards written English initiated new changes regarding the normative corpus: Concerns about an agreed spelling system and consistent grammatical rules arose and, what is of superior relevance for this paper, the broadened field of usage entailed a rapid expansion of vocabulary. According to Nevalainen (1999), statistics and data based on chronological dictionaries like the Chronological English Dictionary (CED) determine the early sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century as a period of notably higher lexical activity. In relation to the size of the vocabulary at that time, which was still respectably more limited, it is to speak of "the fastest vocabulary growth in the history of English" (ibid: 337). The peak of this growth is set in the sixty years from 1570 to 1630.

It is only a logical phenomenon that Latin, being the former language in many official domains, maintained its influx on the English language, generating a respectable number of loan words like area, circus, excursion, genius, index, species, vacuum to enrich and vary the vocabulary (Leech, Svartvik 2016: 51). Their usage remained mostly in the academic domains. Other languages that impacted the English tongue, although not as prominently as Latin, are French, Spanish and Italian (Kohnen 2014: 147). The growing capacity of technical terms in English, mainly produced through borrowing, caused the attitude towards the language to change: Pride and patriotism arose due to the newly enlarged copiousness of English (ibid: 146). However, the pairing of English and loan words in academic contexts also initiated debates about "the advantages and limitations of loan words and excessive borrowings" (ibid.). The criticism was based on the allegation of using borrowings excessively only to "show off" an elevated language style. Partly for this reason, many of the invented loan words with classical origin became obsolete or limited in its usage to specialised terms (ibid.).

Next to the infiltration of loan words is the process of word-formation in order to enlarge the lexis. The most common patterns are compounding, affixation and conversion. In comparison to loaning, the potentiality was higher that vocabulary established through word-formation processes provided a rather transparent and recognisable lexical form, which is why it was often favoured over excessive foreign borrowing (Nevalainen 2006: 59). Word-formation is the combination of bases and affixes, which can be referred to as free and bound elements as bases can have a meaning on their own while affixes cannot (ibid.). The construction of these word-formation processes can be explained as follows:

(1) Compounding is the process of combining a base and another base:

rain (noun) + fall (verb) —> rainfall (noun)

(2) Affixation is the combination of a base and an affix, which can be further divided into prefixation and suffixation:

a) prefixation: out- + weigh (verb) —> outweigh (verb)
b) suffixation: count (verb) + -less —> countless (adjective)

(3) With conversion, also zero-derivation, the form is not altered by combinational processes but the word class of the base changes:

bottle (noun) —> bottle (verb)

Compounding, affixation and conversion were highly productive processes in order to enrich the English lexis during that time. One reason for this, next to their lexical transparency, is the less restrictive economy principle that we encounter in Modern English, where bases are limited to only one possible derivation in order to prohibit ambiguity (Nevalainen 2006: 60). This is why we find length as well as lengthen, enlength, and enlengthen as an alternative for the verb 'to make longer' while today, only the variety lengthen survived for economical reasons (ibid.). Shakespeare himself was very productive in extending and testing the flexible language conditions of Early Modern English by creating new expressions through word formation as we shall see in the analysis of some of his commonly used patterns in Chapter 3.

2.2 Shakespeare and the OED

Now that we have analysed the productive sources of the expanding lexis in order to serve the need of a copious vocabulary, Shakespeare's role in contributing to the language development and his representation in the OED may be discussed. As mentioned before, Shakespeare is found to be overly responsible for producing neologisms through semantic change and word formation processes. The exact number is controversial: The OED reveals 2,035 entries where Shakespeare is named as the initial user (Crystal 2004: 318), while Johnson (2019: 75) names sources where the assumed number of Shakespearean neologisms varies from as low as a dozen up to the extreme of 9,450 words. With the attempt of a thorough analysis and the exclusion of malapropisms and nonsense words, Crystal (2008) and Elliott and Valenza (2011) meet at around 1,700 words. How do the suggested numbers vary in such extremity? Crystal (2004, 2008) explains the discrepancy due to difficulties and inaccuracies associated with the definition of words: some sources count every variation of the same word separately, for example take, takes, taketh, taking, tak'n, taken, take's, took, took't, took, tookst, while others only refer to the lexeme as one word, including every grammatical distinctive. For this example, the divergence in how to count the words becomes explicit: If we count every grammatical form of the lexeme take as a new word, we come up with twelve words instead of just one.

No matter the exact number, Shakespeare's experimental character in his works is undeniable. For the analysis of Shakespearean inventions, this paper consults the OED as a source for coinages that are first recorded in Shakespeare's Macbeth and for information about their extinction or adaption to Modern English. Prior to this, some things need to be considered: Respectably, as Nevalainen (1999: 339) accentuates, the reference of Shakespearean works in the OED displays a biased representation as his works are, in comparison to other authors of that or an earlier time, recorded more frequently2. Brewer (2012) draws the same conclusion and points out that Shakespeare's language has been recorded as detailed as possible in the OED, including almost every word he ever coined, which once again indicates his incomparable cultural and literary status. However, or rather because of this, data and specifications about the initiator of a new word received from the OED may be treated with caution. As it is characteristic of language to change, to develop and to be influenced by both written and oral use, a dictionary displays exactly that: an uncompleted process, a "moving picture" (Brewer 2012: 346). Further analyses and investigations, for example conducted by Crystal (2004) reveal that some new inventions that are allocated to Shakespeare in the OED may in fact have been used before and Shakespeare just appeared to be the first to write them down3. As the documentation of language in the sixteenth and seventeenth century in the OED is inevitably based on solely written material, there is no possibility of an accurate portrayal of historical words that have already been in oral use for a certain time until they appeared on print.

So does this mean Shakespeare's lexical creativity does not meet the credit it is usually given in the OED and many other sources? Crystal and Brewer clearly deny that: They argue that, even given the fact that several words may have existed before in the form that Shakespeare is credited for as the initiator, "using existing words in new ways may well be just as significant a form of lexical innovation as inventing a word in its entity" (Brewer 2012: 350). Altering an already existing word in its meaning and context of usage - as Shakespeare so constantly did - therefore once again emphasises the linguistic creativity of an author. It is only since the production of the third edition of the OED (which began in July 2011) and the revision of the previous versions that not only the dating and source of quotations, but also the historical development of a word's sense became transparent (ibid.). The impact of this renewal becomes clear when comparing the advanced search results for Shakespeare's Macbeth. The entries for First Quotation in Entry sum up to a total of 48 which displays the number of words that, in this form, have never been found in any written works before but in Macbeth. Widening the search to First Quotation in Entry or Sense, the total is 237 entries, a remarkably higher number that depicts all the new senses that Shakespeare has created from an already existing word4. However, due to the vastness of new generated senses only in Macbeth, the further analysis in this paper shall mainly concentrate on the words that the OED identifies as completely new Shakespearean inventions.

It is clear to say that the increasing knowledge of the sixteenth- and seventeenth­century language and literature enabled the elaboration of previous editions of the OED. However , the exploration and revision is not finalised yet. For the further analysis of Shakespeare's neologisms in Macbeth, two things are important to bear in mind: First, the fact that the OED as a research tool grants special, sometimes biased accuracy in terms of treating Shakespeare's works and second, that the OED as a source for the historical retracing of coinages is still in a state of constant revision and amendment.

3. Word formation in Macbeth

3.1 Compounding

As it was said before, compounding was highly productive in order to create new words in Elizabethan English. Therefore, it is no surprise that we find a high number of Shakespearean compounds in Macbeth. One of Shakespeare's frequently used pattern is the creation of nouns, either by combining two nouns (N+N) or a verb and a noun (V+N). Table 1a shows examples of nominal compounds in Macbeth that, according to the OED, first appear in the play and have not been documented in any text before. The actual number of Shakespearean compounds in the play is higher than the list indicates. However, due to the narrowed field of examination to the word field of crime, blood and murder, some compounds like demi-wolf, half-world and hedge-pig are ignored here.

Table 1a. Nominal compounds in Macbeth

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Neither in Modern English nor in the sixteenth century do we find fixed rules for the orthographic presentation. Compounds can be represented by two separate words, by hyphenation or so-called closed compounds, which appear as only one word (Franz 1939: 146; Plag 2015: 101). As we can see in Table 1a and 1b, Shakespearean compounds are most likely to be represented by hyphenation, like in be-all and end-all. The linguistic features of compounds are similar to those of non-compounds, which means they have a meaning and form on their own and are grammatically not to be separated into their two elements (Nevalainen 2006: 60). Furthermore, it is common that the head of the compound determines the grammatical category (Plag 2015: 105).


1 Crystal (2010) has counted a total of 62, however this paper will cover a selection of 44 coinages.

2 The coverage of the lexical innovation in the OED based on their written works is 93% for Shakespeare, 63% for Nashe, 50% for Malory and 42% for Wyatt (Nevalainen 1999: 339).

3 For the detailed analysis see Crystal (2004): The Stories of English, pp. 319-327.

4 Last received on the OED online in March 2021.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Advancing the Word Field of Blood, Crime and Murder. Shakespeare's Lexical Innovation in Macbeth
Early Modern English
University of Cologne
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ISBN (Book)
advancing, word, field, blood, crime, murder, shakespeare, lexical, innovation, macbeth, early, modern, english
Quote paper
Maren Galetke (Author), 2020, Advancing the Word Field of Blood, Crime and Murder. Shakespeare's Lexical Innovation in Macbeth, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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