January: The Tragedy of King Lear and Old English

Today, William Shakespeare is recognized as the world’s greatest poet, and his greatest poetry is found in King Lear. The play was performed before King James and his courtiers on 26 December 1606. They were the first to feel the nuclear power of its language:

Lear:    Blow, wind, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!                                        (King Lear Act 3, Scene 9)

That is the English language at full bore. A first wonderful line is all monosyllables. There are only eight of them though we expect ten syllables in the Shakespearean pentameter. The hammer-blow verbs give the length and strength that the great line needs: blow, crack, rage, blow. The tempest in which Lear finds himself is matched by the anger that blows, cracks and rages within him. The language revels in cosmic disorder, but we are not to forget that this is more than a king raging at the universe. This is a father raging at his daughters. The wind is roused, addressed, defied. The image evoked is one from maps of the time, maps that represented a wind as a floating head with streaming hair and puffing cheeks. 

From the second line onwards, Shakespeare introduces polysyllables: cataracts, hurricanoes, sulphurous. They are matched in successive lines by stupendous phrases: thought-executing, vaunt-couriers, oak-cleaving, all-shaking. And still the battering monosyllables ring out: spout, cocks, fires. Lear is in murderous mood and a dark sexuality colours his hatred. He sees the round world in its ‘thick rotundity’ as fecund womankind. Earlier in the play, Lear prayed for the infertility of his hated daughters. He now calls down infertility on all daughters. Crack the moulds, he cries; destroy their ovaries. Spill their ‘germens’, he cries; destroy the germ cells that make mankind. Hatred for disobedient children and rebellious subjects cannot go further.

The language of Shakespeare can be terrible, terrifying, tremendous. Any nine lines of King Lear reveal the same treasure of word use, word change, word power. The language of Shakespeare can overwhelm us even as it can enrich us. Nonetheless, ‘the language of Shakespeare’ means more than one thing. There is the language that is especially his: his poetry, his rhetoric, his words. But the language of Shakespeare is at the same time, simply, the English language. If we turn back to Lear’s nine lines and examine them not as the language of one particular user but as the language that we all use, then we can analyse the nine lines to a quite different end.  

In those nine lines, there is one word from Celtic, one word from Greek, ten words from Latin and French, and fifty-two from Old English. It may be no surprise that there is only one word from Greek, ‘cataracts’, and even that came to English by way of Latin. It is something of a mystery that there is only one Celtic word. That word is ‘Lear’. It derives from the name of the Celtic god Lir. Why are there no words from Lir’s language in Lear’s speech?

The invaders, who came to call themselves the English, adopted almost no words from Britonnic, the Celtic language of the territory we now call England. However, eventually and by a roundabout route, those invaders did adopt some Britonnic stories. In medieval England, the Celtic god Lir became the English king Leir who offered to divide his kingdom between his daughters in portions as they declared their love for him. His eldest daughters asserted their exceeding love. His youngest daughter refused to speak. Tragedy followed.

The story was told in the drama of King Leir, playing in London in the 1590s. The story is told again and elaborated by sub-plots in Shakespeare’s King Lear. The once-Celtic god speaks English, and there are Frenchmen at his court. Shakespeare was concerned not with historical accuracy but with the relation of father to daughter, the foolishness of age and the language of commitment.

The old explanation for the absence of Britonnic words in English was that the Germanics swept the Celts west into Wales and Cornwall. DNA analysis says that was not what happened. Germanic warriors took Celtic wives, and Celtic genes survive but hardly any Celtic words. There is ‘brock’ meaning ‘badger’. There are Avon and Ouse both meaning ‘river’. There is ‘dad’ meaning ‘dad’. The limited list says something about those warriors and those wives, but it is not clear what it says.

We date the history of the English language from the arrival in Britannia of those Germanics. That is an artificial, if convenient, starting point. The English language is as old as language itself. Before it was English, it was West Germanic. Before it was West Germanic, it was Germanic. Before it was Germanic, it was Proto-Indo-European. That is the ancestor language of peoples from the Atlantic to the Urals and from the Himalayas to the Satpuras. The Indo-European language families of Western Europe are the Hellenic (including Greek), the Italic (including Latin and French), the Celtic (including Gaelic and Britonnic) and the Germanic (including English and German).

So Shakespeare’s language is a descendant of Proto-Indo-European. It is a centum language, the language family of Western Europe from which have developed the Hellenic, Italic, Celtic and Germanic languages. As Shakespeare learned to speak in Stratford in Warwickshire, he learned a dialect of English that owed more to the Angles who had invaded fifth-century Britannia than to invading Saxons and Jutes. There were probably other West Germanic invaders, such as Friesians and Franks, but Angles, Saxons and Jutes are the ones that Bede mentions and that we learn about in school.

From 600 onwards, written records began to appear in Anglian, Mercian, West Saxon and Kentish, the four major dialects of Old English. Kentish has left little trace in Modern English, but West Saxon gave rise to West Country English, Mercian to Midlands English and Anglian to North Country English and Scots.

Mercian, the language of the people of the Marches, of the Borders, was the predecessor of Shakespeare’s childhood English. Watling Street had divided the ancient kingdom of Mercia in half.  To the east lay the Danelaw. There East Midlands English developed. To the west lay counties where the Danes did not settle: Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire. There West Midlands English developed.

West Midland English is what Shakespeare spoke as a boy. It had its own accent, vocabulary and grammar. These features, what the Victorians called Warwickshireisms, can be detected in his plays. Words and personal names provide the greatest number, but perhaps the most significant feature is a grammatical one. West Midlanders said ‘he walks’ not ‘he walketh’.

Shakespeare uses both ‘walks’ and ‘walketh’ in his plays. Speaking, he probably only ever said ‘he walks’. Writing was different. He regularly wrote ‘he walketh’. He would have heard that in the speech of Londoners who came from the West Country. ‘Walketh’ had a rhythmically useful extra syllable, and Shakespeare took advantage of that as and when needed.

People came to London speaking every kind of English, but, primarily, London’s English was East Midland English. That was the dialect closest to Shakespeare’s own, and, at the West End of London, East Midland English was turning itself into a prestige dialect. The equality of dialects that was characteristic of Middle English was going. At the same time, English was turning itself into a learned language so that it could be a vehicle for every kind of knowledge. To do that, written English was regularizing its spelling and grammar and expanding its vocabulary. Between 1500 and 1700, it took some 20,000 words from Latin.

Lear’s speech includes ten Italic words and 52 Germanic words. That count conceals the fact that the English vocabulary of Shakespeare’s day was overwhelmingly Latin and French in origin. Is Lear’s speech misleading? The answer to that question requires a different approach to words than a study of their origins. We need to look both at the classes of words that make a language function and at the kinds of language that Shakespeare gave his characters.

Lear in his rage, despair and desperation speaks a language from the heart’s core. Driving verbs sound his fury: blow, crack, make, singe, spill, spout, strike. So with Lear’s nouns: cheeks, cocks, fires, head, man, oak, moulds, thought, winds, world. So with his adjectives: drench’d, drown’d, flat, thick, white.

52 out of Lear’s 63 words are monosyllables. Actors and audiences alike love the opportunity that monosyllables give for expressing rage. But 80% plus is a very high ratio of monosyllables to polysyllables. It reflects not a particular feature of the English language but a particular feature of Lear’s language. Lear is raging against life. A thunderstorm rages against Lear. As Lear retreats to the primitive, Shakespeare finds an extreme of language.

For purposes of linguistic analysis, words are regularly divided into open and closed classes. Open class includes nouns, verbs, adjectives an open-type adverbs. Closed class includes articles, pronouns, conjunctions, modals, prepositions, closed-type adverbs and exclamations. Largely, the closed class does the work of grammar. Largely, the open class is the vehicle of sense. Merely to read lists of Lear’s nouns and verbs puts us in the frame of his meaning.

Joseph Bosworth and Thomas Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary contains some 10,000 headwords. Most of them we are still using in everyday speech. They might be called the root vocabulary of English, and that is why Shakespeare has his once Celtic god become British king resort to them in his passion. In Bosworth and Toller, we find all of Lear’s closed-class words: all, and, at, have, my, of, once, our, that, the, thou, till, to, you, your. Several are repeated several times. That is the way with such words.

In the closed-class words, there is not one of French or Latin origin. Close-classed words provide the scaffolding of grammar on which the sense bearing nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs can be hung. Languages borrow open-class words from other languages all the time. They do not borrow closed-class words. However, there is an exception to that rule: English has borrowed pronouns (and much else) from another language. That language is Danish. If the Celtic god Lir provides an opportunity to look at the ancient roots of the English language, Hamlet the Dane provides an opportunity to see how a linguistic invasion refashioned our language in the ninth and tenth centuries.


Baugh, Albert C., and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language. Englewood: Prentice-Hall, 1978.

Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon dictionary, based on the manuscript collections of the late Joseph Bosworth. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1882. See today: www.bosworthtoller.com.

Crystal, David. The Stories of English. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2005.

Dickson, Andrew. Worlds Elsewhere: Journeys around Shakespeare's Globe. London: The Bodley Head, 2015.

Dobson, Michael, ed. The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Page 517.

Garner, Bryan A. "Shakespeare's Latinate Neologisms.’ Shakespeare Studies, 15 (1982): 149-170.

Kemmer, Suzanne. ‘Loanwords.’ Words in English. Rice University: www.ruf.rice.edu, 2003.

Moffat, Alistair. The British: A Genetic Journey. Kindle Edition. Edinburgh: Berlinn, 2013. 

Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor, John Jowett, and William Montgomery. Kindle Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Steinsaltz, David. ‘The Politics of French Language in Shakespeare’s History Plays.’ Papers. Oxford: www.steinsaltz.me.uk.


Next Month’s English Project Language: In February, we will look at The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and the influence of Danish on the English Language. Go to www.englishproject.org for the bibliography. See below for school activities.


The English Project Shakespeare Year for Schools 

1.  Try re-writing Lear’s speech by replacing some key verbs with your own choices. Look up the origin of the verbs you use in an etymological – print or online.  Discuss with someone else what difference your verb choices make to the text.

2. There is a debate about how many words Shakespeare himself made popular, or even created. Look up (or ask your teacher) what a compound word is and try to create some of your own ‘Shakespearean compounds’ similar in imagination to those in the text such as ‘thought-executing’ or ‘oak-cleaving’.

3. Shakespeare probably had a West Midlands accent. Have a go at reading aloud an extract from ‘King Lear’ as you think it might have sounded in 1600. Practise your own rendering of some different accents to see which fits each character and situation the best. You could extend this task by researching current day accents and dialects – you can probably find examples of most online.

The English Project’s Educational Materials are prepared by Marcus Barrett of Richard Huish College. Follow-up, feedback and suggestions would be appreciated. Contact: marcusb@richuish.ac.uk