According to an infographic published by data scientist Matt Daniels, the vocabulary featured in Shakespeare’s entire body of work is dwarfed by dozens of hip-hop legends. For example, for every 5,000 unique words Shakespeare used in his poems and plays, Aesop Rock used 7,000 in his lyrics.
When we play with our words and invent new turns of phrase, the English language as a whole shifts to accommodate these additions and adjustments. It is thus only logical that modern day rappers would have access to a wider breadth of words than Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago.
Indeed, the English language is constantly evolving and expanding through the borrowing, creation, and redefinition of words.
English is a hodgepodge of several European languages. After conquest by the Romans, the Celts began to incorporate Latin into their dialects in order to communicate with their new leaders. As Germanic tribes from central Europe such as the Anglo-Saxons settled in Britain, parts of their languages became widespread to facilitate trade and communication. This borrowing from other languages is how words such as “hospital” and “digital” are similar across multiple tongues.
Twenty years ago, the word “Internet” was not included in the dictionary. Fifteen years ago, it was spelled with a lower-case ‘i.’ When we invent new objects and concepts, we need to describe them with new words. As these words spread like wildfire amongst English-speakers, they become further entrenched in the English language. On the other hand, words we stop using eventually disappear from the language altogether. For example, no one in the modern age defines themselves as a “jobler,” or someone who completes small jobs because no one uses it.
Words receive additional meanings over time as English speakers use them to describe new things. In time, the word’s new definition overshadows its original one. For example, the word “awful” originally referred to a person who was awe-struck or full of wonder. Now it means the exact opposite, describing something particularly negative or unpleasant.