Shakespeare, teaching Shakespeare

Changing Language: Shakespeare Is a Far Cry From the English of Text-Savvy Students

August 25, 2010 06:00 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
A comparison of Shakespeare’s English to a modern student’s text message conversation shows few resemblances, but this isn’t the first time English has undergone radical evolution.

Shakespeare Changed English, Now English Has Changed

For years, teaching Shakespeare has meant referencing a dictionary for modern translations of old English terms and phrases. But teachers today face another challenge, according to Brenda Bernet of The Associated Press: translating that modern English into the uber-modern text slang that students of today are used to.

Some teachers, according to Bernet, have students read Shakespeare’s plays more than once to fully comprehend the now-foreign language. Others find it easier to have students act out the plays, and still others use abstract comparisons to decipher Shakespeare.

But even in his day, students of Shakespeare would have had a challenge understanding the entirety of his plays, as he is thought to have coined more than 1,500 words in his work.

Students today seem to have invented a new spin on English as well. A 2008 survey found that more than half of students let “textisms” and “emoticons” slip in to their school writing from time to time, causing worry among educators about the evolution of the English language.

Opinion: Should Internet-age English be made official?

Although text message slang is showing up in classrooms, one study suggests that the students who use it might not be harming their language skills, but simply using slang as an outlet for creativity. The study, conducted by England’s Coventry University, found that the students who used “textisms” in answering a series of questions actually scored better on language and vocabulary tests than their non text-savvy counterparts.

Does the widespread use of text message slang mean that the English language is ready for a change? Some say yes, but these new “textisms” are just another addition to a long-standing debate about potential changes to spelling in the English language. Since the time of Mark Twain, academics have debated allowing for more phonetic spelling of English words.

But if English is to undergo a change, when, and how, do new words and phrases become part of the language? There is no official governing body over the English language. Changes to the “official” language differ based on what dictionary you consult, and widespread acceptance of new words is a timely process.

Related Topic: The death of a language

With modern technology comes access to people in parts of the world once hidden away. But globalization also brings the spread of some languages, and the death of others. UNESCO recently released a map of dead or dying languages, with thousands of tongues making the list. Researchers are working to save those languages from extinction, as the loss of a language means the loss of an entire way of thinking and communicating, and thus the loss of a culture.

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