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Influence of Shakespeare on English Language Morphology

A high school student with an intense passion for History & Literature!

Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare



It is not always that a person stands so highly in the lexical world as Shakespeare does. What’s even more amazing is how someone can live in a time so impoverished in language yet create such an encompassing body of work. The journey of Shakespeare in the English language is much like the journey of the young visionary in search of a utopian future - picking up bits and pieces of marginally low opportunities in search of an ultimate actualization. And so did Shakespeare pick up the remnants of the English language that Chaucer and others had written before him. During Shakespeare’s time, a utopian view of the world in the English language would remain lexically deficient in that there would be not enough words to describe a comprehensive array of ideas. And this deficiency was usually adopted as the general state of affairs of the English language.

But in this situation, what is a talented playwright who values his language and cultural heritage going to do? Well, it's call captured in this succint meme

This just shows how Shakespeare went about

This just shows how Shakespeare went about

Going against all odds, Shakespeare was motivated by this deficiency and thus went on a long ranging spree of creating new words and grounding himself in history. Then the poet had a very profound impact on the English language. So profound in fact that it is impossible to gauge exactly how much words he created. Yet estimates exist and they raise the bar to just about 1700, out of the 20,000 already-existing words he had at his disposal. As you can already tell, Shakespeare liked to play with language. One method he adopted was to use an already existing suffix or prefix and incorporate it into a new word. Another method was compounding by linking two different words together. Finally, he converted words from one class to another as in changing a noun to a verb or a verb to a noun.

II- Body A- Derivation

The lexical treasure that Shakespeare imbued to the english language best expressed itself through derivative word-formation techniques. That is, the attribution of adequate suffixation and prefixation to reach a creative effect with a word, namely a dramatic one in the case of Shakespeare. In addition to being Shakespeare's most preffered word-formation technique, it is also noted that derivation was the most extensively used technique in Early Modern English. However, this was just a recent phenomenon, as derivation was practically absent before Shakespeare's time. That being said, the following list of illustrative examples showcase how Shakespeare used this method of lexical formation in his works.

Derivation - Suffixes











Derivation - Prefixes

-en: Enmesh, ensnare, enthrone

Other prefixed words: Submerge, premeditated, unprizable

B- Compounds

However, unlike derivation, compounds had an opportunity to run their course in antiquity. Rather than being just a recent development, compounding had been used by writers since the earliest tales known to mankind. Yet despite this, compounding came into a new light at the time of Shakespeare. Accordingly, Shakespeare molded and crafted the technique such that in addition to contributing to the already well-established field of nominal compounds, he would create a new form of compounding: Adverbial particle phrases by means of adding an agentive suffix. To further elaborate, the following list of examples showcase how exactly Shakespeare used this technique:

Adverbial PhrasesNominal Compounds 

Goer Back








C- Conversion

Similar to derivation, the conversion word-formation technique was practically absent before Shakespeare’s time. Also likewise to derivation, conversion saw an upstart in its usage by the Early Modern English writers who wished to grapple with the tight ends of the language’s grammar. More specifically, they would convert both nouns to verbs, and verbs to nouns. To illustrate the following list of examples showcase Shakespeare’s usage of the technique:

Verb to nounNoun to verb 

To control - Control

Blanket - To blanket


To dawn - dawn

Jade - To jade


to sneak - sneak

Label - To label


III- Conclusion

It is enough to say that even his arch rival in writing, Ben Jonson, had nothing but awe-struck praise while reading his works. More than that, while compiling the first English dictionary, Samuel Johnson, cited Shakespeare as a source for different words more than every other writer out there. That being said, some people might ask why should one study Shakespeare. The thing is, Shakespeare timelessly resonates with the human condition. To quote his arch rival, Ben Jonson, “Shakespeare’s work is not of an age, but for all of time”. This is because his themes of love, jealousy, envy, hatred, decline, and prosperity are all matters of issue today. So, in the end, I suggest you to look into this poetic adventure, because there is nothing in it but good.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Nicolas Ladkani