2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, and the focus of celebrations is on what Shakespeare achieved through his use of the English language. Yet, there is relatively little work on Shakespeare’s language, in comparison with literary critical studies of his works. A large project on Shakespeare’s language is long overdue.
A team, led by Jonathan Culpeper and based in the Department of Linguistics and English Language (LAEL), has been awarded £1 million by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to create a new Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language. Other members of the team are Andrew Hardie and Tony McEnery (both LAEL), Paul Rayson (Computing and Communications), Alison Findlay (English & Creative Writing) and Dawn Archer (Manchester Metropolitan University).
The project will trace Shakespeare's use of language, establishing in detail not only what is unique about Shakespeare's language, but also what it meant to his contemporaries – including, for example, attitudes towards love or death, what it meant to be Welsh or a harlot, or even the significance of eating fish as opposed to beef.
This will be the first comprehensive treatment of Shakespeare’s language using corpus-based methods. Computers will identify language patterns, including patterns of meaning, in both Shakespeare and a 321 million-word corpus comprising the work of his contemporaries, not just playwrights but writers of all kinds.
The Encyclopaedia will be relevant to many humanities disciplines, beyond language and literature, as it will reveal contemporary attitudes, social constructions, and so on. Part of the project's mission is to improve understandings of Shakespeare’s language amongst the broader public.
Lancaster University is the perfect setting for this project. Staff in the Department of English Language and Linguistics have been at the forefront of Corpus Linguistics for over 40 years, as seen in the 3.5 million pound ESRC Research Centre for Corpus Approaches to the Social Science.
For more on the methodological challenges and solutions, see Encyclopaedia of Shakespeare’s Language Project: A methodological journey