The Frontal Cortex

Shakespeare and Syntax

Shakespeare bent language in peculiar ways. He had a habit of violating our conventional grammatical categories, so that nouns became verbs and adjectives were turned into nouns. (This is known as a functional shift.) Here’s Phillip Davis:

Thus in “Lear” for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: “He childed as I fathered” (nouns shifted to verbs); in “Troilus and Cressida”, “Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages” (noun converted to adjective); “Othello”, “To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!”‘ (noun “lip” to verb; adjective “wanton” to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare’s lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain. Could we make an experiment out of it?
We decided to try to see what happens inside us when the brain comes upon sentences like “The dancers foot it with grace”, or “We waited for disclose of news”, or “Strong wines thick my thoughts”, or “I could out-tongue your griefs” or “Fall down and knee/The way into his mercy”. For research suggests that there is one specific part of the brain that processes nouns and another part that processes verbs: but what happens when for a micro-second there is a serious hesitation between whether, in context, this is noun or verb?

It turns out that such functional shifts have a unique effect on the brain.

While the Shakespearian functional shift was semantically integrated with ease, it triggered a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole. Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence–at the neural level–of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.

The essay is wonderful example of our two cultures coming together. Check it out.

Thanks for the tip Margaret!


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    December 11, 2007

    Interesting stuff indeed. It does raise one question for me.

    Shakespeare bent language in peculiar ways. He had a habit of violating our conventional grammatical categories,

    But was he violating the conventions of the time? As noted, this was “an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile”.

    Is this a rough parallel to Bach, where one could observe that he didn’t really contribute much if anything to form or harmony, but he did use the available tools and approaches better than anyone else?

    Or was Shakespeare really extending the boundaries in ways that others weren’t?

  2. #2 peggy
    December 11, 2007

    It reminds me of what Proust said: “La seule manière de défendre la langue, c’est de l’attaquer, mais oui, Madame Straus!” The point being that original artistic expression through language requires an artful violation of the established rules of grammar that somehow still manages to “make sense,” or that we are still somehow able to make sense of. Maybe it is in breaking certain conventions of language, grammar and syntax that brilliant writers develop a unique style that is instantly recognizable. Just a thought!

  3. #3 Alan
    December 11, 2007

    There must be a human tendency to use nouns as verbs, but when does this occurrence arise? Can it be to provide some mental shortcut for rich metaphor? For example, one speaks of “mouthing slogans” and “footing the bill.”

  4. #4 alice
    December 12, 2007

    My most unfavorite noun used as a verb is ‘impact’.

    “How has the rise in interest rates impacted your financial situation?”

    It reminds me of a dental emergency.

    Strunk and White say this:

    “Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs. Not all are bad, but all are suspect.”

    For more about how language works, I recommend “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker

  5. #5 peggy
    December 12, 2007

    To Alice:
    Impact is ugly as a verb, but seems to be pretty “impacted” into the language by now.
    But perhaps the flexibility of the English language in this respect is one of its great strengths.

  6. #6 alice
    December 12, 2007

    Yes it is ugly.

    I’m sure Shakesspeare would never have used it.

    The Englishlanguage is flexible unlike French, n’est-ce pas?

  7. #7 peggy
    December 13, 2007

    Yes, English does seem more flexible, at least when it comes to inventing new words. Maybe this is why the French have a habit of adopting English words in the gerund form to describe things (le pressing, le parking, le brushing, le jogging, etc.), which is not to say that French is completely inflexible. After all, it only took the Académie française several years to “recommend” that the term “walkman” (itself a Japanese invention) be replaced in French by “baladeur” (from se balader, to stroll). Unfortunately, by this time i-pod technology had made the “baladeur” pretty much obsolete.

  8. #8 shumaher
    January 16, 2008


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