How Shakespeare Is Like The World Wide Web

Shakespeare & the World Wide Web

Shakespeare & the World Wide Web

Shakespeare would have enjoyed the explosion that the English language has experienced with the invention of the Internet because he was fascinated with language. His own influence on the English language cannot be over-estimated, with his invention of new words, new ways of using words and his metaphorical phrases that have become part of normal or usual English expression. When we talk of achieving several things in one fell swoop, for example, we are talking quite naturally, without realizing that we are quoting Shakespeare, nor that if he had never created that image it would not be an everyday part of the English language. If we cut a finger and someone tells us that our hand is all bloody we are using, not only an adjective that Shakespeare created from the noun ‘blood’ but also the principle that Shakespeare established, that adding a ‘y’ to almost any noun will create a new way of describing something – for example ‘dirty,’ ‘seedy,’ ‘flowery,’ etc. And if Shakespeare needed to refer to something for which there was no word he would simply make one up – for example, ‘multitudinous,’ and ‘incarnadine.’

Those who are developing the Internet are doing exactly what Shakespeare did, in their need to make a common Internet language so that we can all understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about the net. Just like Shakespeare, they are using several language development techniques. One of the techniques is to adapt existing words, resulting in changed meanings for those words. For example, the word ‘worm’ which, when used in the context of the Internet, means a virus that does not infect other programs, although it may install or destroy files. That is something that might have confused Shakespeare because the word has subsequently taken on a new usage and therefore has a new meaning. But he would have recognised the term ‘Trojan Horse’ because the concept is still the one that would have been familiar to him. He would have thought of the war ruse that the Greeks used – hiding warriors in a wooden horse and then emerging once the horse had been taken through the city gates. In Internet terms a Trojan Horse is a computer program that is either hidden inside another program or that masquerades as something it is not, in order to trick potential users into running it. It’s a brilliant name for that phenomenon.

Another kind of Internet language development is to create entirely new phrases, some of which would be utterly meaningless to Shakespeare, such as broadband speed test and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) but there are others whose meaning he would have been able to work out, such as ‘American Standard Code for Information Interchange’ (ASCII) and, perhaps, ‘walled garden,’ a lovely phrase that refers to a closed or exclusive set of information services provided for subscribing users.

As for new words, we have the entirely new ‘to google’, used as a verb. It’s a transitive verb, as we don’t just google, we google something specific. There is also the new ‘app,’ presumably derived from the word ‘application.’ And there are a lot more.

In all these cases the language development we are witnessing is exactly the same process as we find in the works of Shakespeare – when language is required to describe something existing language is used to give it a new meaning, or a word or phrase is adapted for new usage, and sometimes a new word is invented. It is possible that the Internet will have as profound an effect on the English language as Shakespeare did.

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