Why is the English that we speak today so different from that of Shakespeare's time?
Compared to other major languages, English is a relatively young language, which had gone through several stages of evolution. During Shakespeare’s time, the English used was what we now call “Early Modern English”. Since then, the language itself has gone through further evolution to reach its present stage. So why has the language changed?
Firstly, the political, economic and social conditions in our society have since changed from Shakespeare’s time. Compared to Shakespeare's time, the social classes, occupations and public mindset in today's society are markedly different, thus it is only natural that the language we use has also evolved along the way. For example, a person from Shakespeare’s time might find our current forms of address like "Mister" or "Mrs" too informal, if not outright rude. On the other hand, we might find theirs such as "My Lord", "Your Grace" or "Master Jones" unnatural or pretentious. If anyone were to use such terms of address in a common setting, it would make the other person wonder if he or she is being sarcastic instead!
Moreover, during Shakespeare's time, it was common for people to be addressed by their occupations together with a prefix such as "Master Innkeeper" or "Master Blacksmith". Fortunately or unfortunately, we now don't go around calling people "Master Banker" or "Master Plumber".
Secondly, many words used during Shakespeare’s time are either no longer in use or have changed in meaning. For example, the word “wench” used to mean “a peasant girl”, but has now adopted a derogatory meaning. Similarly, a "fellow" in Shakespeare's time referred to a person of a lower social class, but is now commonly used to refer to a man or boy. The word has also evolved to be used for a person belonging to a learned group such as a "research fellow". How times have changed indeed!
Thirdly, in the ensuring four centuries, the English language has since undergone a standardization process.Unlike Shakespeare’s time when the conventional word order and grammar conventions had not been fully established, the grammar in today’s English is the outcome of a long codification process. Since the 16th century, English writers have been pushing forward the idea that the English language could be made more "perfect" so that it could be turned into an "eloquent" language like classical Latin. To improve the English language, a grammatical terminology, closely modeled after Latin, was gradually developed over the years. The language was reformed in ways such that English spelling, vocabulary and grammar were "rationalised".
Fourthly,the advent of science and technology has brought about the need for new words, whether it is through invention or incorporation of foreign ones, so as to explain new ideas and concepts. Since Shakespeare's time, the English language has also come into contact with many cultures and people across the world. The languages that English has borrowed words from included Latin, French, Greek, German, Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language), Hindi, Arabic, Malay, Italian, Farsi, Spanish, Portuguese and other languages. In short, English has borrowed a huge number of words from foreign languages, making its vocabulary one of the largest of all languages. Nonetheless, given the rapid pace of scientific progress and the continuous cross-cultural interactions, it is only natural that the English language, in order to remain relevant, would also have to expand itself to adapt to an ever-changing world.
Lastly, we sometimes forget that the English language during Shakespeare’s time was only a regional language of a relatively small country. At that time, English writers were still trying to increase the English lexicon so that it could reach the status of languages such as Latin and Greek, which were considered then as the ideal languages. In England, there was even a nationalist mindset to prefer words of Anglo-Saxon origin to foreign ones. Xenophobic sentiments were rife given that prevailing lack of confidence in this young language.
However, many things have changed since then. Today, modern English is the international lingua franca and the language of diplomacy, science and business. It is also the most common language of the Internet. These developments are largely due to the colonial legacy of Britain and the current superpower status of the United States. Hence, unlike Shakespearean English which might be somewhat defensive and lacking in self-confidence given the circumstances at that time, today’s English is confident and optimistic of its future.
The above are just some reasons why the English language has evolved over the centuries to reach its current state. The amazing thing is that the language continues to evolve to adapt to the changing times. For example, different forms (not just accents) of English are spoken in different parts of the world, due to different cultural and historical backgrounds, though people can generally still understand one another.
English is now the second most spoken language in the world. According to some estimates, there are about 300 million native speakers and another 300 million who use it as a second language. Then there is an additional 100 million who use English as a foreign language.
English is now designated as the official or co-official language in more than 45 countries. It is also widely spoken in many other countries even though it does have any official recognition. This is mainly due to the economic influence of English, which is the international language of business.
Primarily due to the colonial legacy, English is part of the socio-economic and cultural life of more than 50 countries, which include African countries, New Zealand, Australia, the United States, India and other parts of Asia.
The beauty of the English language is its flexibility and ability to accommodate words of foreign origin and even invent new words to describe new discoveries or inventions. Sometimes, we tend to forget that the reasons behind how a relatively young language like English can become such a dominant one in today's world are precisely what we should continue to nurture and encourage.