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  • "Think on my Words": Exploring Shakespeare's Language
  • Christy Desmet
David Crystal . "Think on my Words": Exploring Shakespeare's Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 254 pp. index. append. chron. bibl. $80 (cl), $19.99 (pbk). ISBN: 978-0-521-87694-0 (cl), ISBN: 978-0-521-70035-1 (pbk).

David Crystal represents "Think on My Words": Exploring Shakespeare's Language as using a "nuts-and-bolts" approach to Shakespeare's language (ix) that asks of each linguistic feature: "What does it do?" This simple question has, in turn, two parts: How does a particular linguistic feature "help us understand the meaning of what is said," which involves a "semantic" approach; and "how does it help us appreciate the dramatic or poetic effect of what is said," a "pragmatic" approach (ix). Chapter 1 sets the scene by dispelling a number of myths about Shakespeare's language —for instance, the notion that Shakespeare's vocabulary was prestigiously large. Crystal not only shows that a contemporary American uses [End Page 1412] 50,000 words, while Shakespeare had only 20,000 at his command, but also discusses why Shakespeare's vocabulary was as large as it was in relation to his contemporaries (the wide range of his subject matter).

Chapter 2 rehearses the genealogy of Shakespearean texts with an eye toward explaining the range of available evidence, offering a brief, but clear account of early modern printing and the book trade. Chapter 3, which concerns "Shakespearean graphology," offers an equally clear description of the early modern alphabet and of such stumbling blocks to contemporary readers as the long s, capitalization, space holders such as & and etc., and inconsistent spelling. Chapter 4 deals with punctuation and its relationship to variations in early modern rhetorical delivery. Chapter 5, "'Speak the Speech': Shakespearean Phonology," offers an excellent introduction to the rhythm of Shakespeare's line, especially iambic pentameter.

The sixth chapter, on Shakespearean pronunciation, gives readers a good sense of how much fun linguistic detection can be, as Crystal examines rhythm and rhyme in a series of cases to draw inferences about pronunciation. Chapters 7 through 9 get to the heart of the matter by talking readers through the process of how we can and should study Shakespeare's language. Chapter 7, on Shakespeare's vocabulary, begins by showing that much of Shakespeare's diction can be readily understood, from either our contemporary usage or local rhetorical context. The remaining, truly "difficult" words should be learned in conjunction with other Shakespearean instances or through collocations, words regularly paired with the unknown word. Particularly entertaining is the exploration of "false friends," more examples of which can be found in an appendix. In a similar manner, Chapter 8 leads readers through the twists and turns of Shakespearean grammar, again countering the common notion that Shakespeare's meaning is difficult to grasp. Chapter 9 offers an admirably direct, succinct description of the dynamic relationships among prose and verse in Shakespeare's texts that would be particularly useful to Shakespeare teachers and students.

Crystal is never explicit about who his audience is, but I think that the book would be useful for the undergraduate Shakespeare classroom, although perhaps in small doses. Beginning graduate students in both Shakespeare and History of the English language would be another target audience, as would be the large body of interested, educated adults, the kind who go to Shakespeare festivals. All of these audiences will be attracted to Crystal's basic approach; as the conclusion to "Think on My Words" puts it, "Above all, Shakespeare shows us how to dare to do things with language" (233).

Crystal's book has a companion website, Shakespeare's Words, which is available by subscription at, and includes a powerful online concordance. Based on Crystal's intelligent discussion of the use of thee and you in King Lear, I compared results from the concordance offered by Shakespeare's Words with those from the free engine offered by Shakespeare Searched at Shakespeare's Words yielded more examples of thee, thou, you, and ye than did Shakespeare Searched, although the [End Page 1413] counts were roughly comparable. Nevertheless, both give...


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pp. 1412-1414
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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