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What if Shakespeare could write in Chinese?

For any Chinese learners, knowing tens of thousands of Chinese words is pretty impressive. What will really be an admirable achievement is for them to have the ability to use these tens of thousands of Chinese words in writing. 

This is probably true for any languages. The ability to use a large quantity of words is surely a sign of a grand master of that language. 

Talking about masters of languages, Shakespeare come to many people’s minds. Shakespeare did know and did use tons of English words.

According to Marvin Spevack, who did a thorough research, there were 29,066 different words in Shakespeare. However, that number generously includes many variant forms of a word, for example, take, takes, taketh, taking, tak'n, taken, tak'st, tak't, took, tooke, took'st, and tookst. 

If all the variant forms of a word are considered as a single word, Shakespeare’s vocabulary falls back to about 20,000 words.

Some people consider this number was not very impressive. Any average educated person nowadays knows that many words. However, these people did not think about that knowing 20,000 words is different from using 20,000 words. It is easy to read when knowing 20,000 words. But it is really hard to use these 20,000 words effectively to write. Yet Shakespeare did it.

Another amazing thing about Shakespeare is that he was really liberated to coin new words whenever he felt the needs. Bill Bryson wrote the following in his Shakespeare The World As Stage:

“He coined - or, to be more carefully precise, made the first recorded use of - 2,035 words, and interestingly he indulged the practice from the very outset of his career. Titus Andronicus and Love's Labour's Lost, two of his earliest words, have 140 new words between them.

“In plays written during his most productive and inventive period - Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear - neologisms occur at the fairly astonishing rate of one every two and a half line. Hamlet alone gave audience about six hundred words that, according to all other evidence, they had never heard before.

“Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, well-read, and countless others (including countless). Where would we be without them?” 

Therefore, not only did Shakespeare use a lot of words, he also coined a lot of words. Those are the reasons why Shakespeare was Shakespeare.

I was thinking, what if Shakespeare could write in Chinese? Could he achieve a similar stellar result? 

It seems rather difficult. 

Shakespeare used many variant forms of a word, such as, take, takes, taketh, taking, tak'n, taken, tak'st, tak't, took, tooke, took'st, and tookst. 

In Chinese, that would be many variant forms of a character, such as and , and , or four different ways to write the character .

I admit that this comparison is not the best. English words and Chinese characters are two different concepts. Let’s stick to it for now.

Secondly, Shakespeare also invented thousands of new words. That would be very difficult to achieve using Chinese characters.

Using an alphabet of 26 letters is easier to make up a word, or to borrow a word, than using thousands of Chinese characters. 

Take a look at today’s newly invented words:

  • 躺平 (to lie flat, to opt out of the rat race)
  • 内卷 (to involute, to become increasingly competitive due to limited resources)
  • 凡尔赛 (to humblebrag, ostensibly modest, but in fact boastful)
  • 粉丝 (fans)
  • 饭圈 (fan club)
  • 吃瓜群众 (onlookers who are interested in the spectacle but don’t have anything knowledgeable to say about it)

Each word require two to four characters, and all different characters. Even 粉丝 and 饭圈, these two words are related in meanings, but quite different in word constructions. 

It seems to me that it is pretty hard to coin new words in Chinese, let alone for one person to come up with thousands of new combinations.