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August 2015

Writers who have redefined the English language

These writers have changed the English language with their masterpieces

The development of any language comes from evolution. Old methods of communicating are influenced by external methods, adapting over time and eventually becoming the languages we know today. Even still, the languages we speak are evolving in ways we may not even notice. This is particularly apparent with the rise of technology, where text message and Internet lingo have entered our lexicon. Today we’ll take a look at some of the great writers who have influenced the English language in the past.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

In the English language, no one outside the Bible is quoted more than William Shakespeare. The popularity of his plays helped contribute to the standardisation of the English language, including grammar and popular sayings. He introduced new words and phrases, even slang today like "swag" (used in Othello). Shakespeare borrowed from classical literature and foreign languages and broke grammatical rules by changing nouns to verbs and verbs into adjectives (creating neologisms, or new words and phrases). He played with the English language, injecting freedom into linguistics. Many of the words Shakespeare created are common in British English today.

John Milton (1608-1674)

English poet John Milton, author of the epic poem Paradise Lost, is known as one of the greatest English authors in history. Paradise Lost was an instant success, elevating the writer to a status equal to or even superior to all his predecessors (including Shakespeare, according to some). Written when he was totally blind, Milton dictated the words of his poem to his group of aides. His masterpiece remains one of the greatest works in the English language. Milton’s ability to balance syntax and imagery continues to influence great writers.

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400)

Way before Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, perhaps the greatest English poet during the Middle Ages, developed the legitimacy of the vernacular of his time. Prior to his rise, French and Latin were the dominant languages in England. You may not recognize his English today, as even common words like "little" and "saw" were spelled differently ("littel" and "saugh", respectively), but still we cannot discount the influence of Chaucer's poetic works on the evolution of the English language.

James Joyce (1882-1941)

Irish author James Joyce's masterpieces Ulysses, Dubliners, and Finnegans Wake often top lists of great literature by critics and scholars. In 1999, Time Magazine named him one of the most important people of the 20th century, citing that he "revolutionised 20th century fiction". He was an influence also to other great writers such as Samuel Beckett. Joyce knew 17 languages, including Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Norwegian, which he learned at age 19 so that he could read Henrik Ibsen's work in its original language.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Mark Twain (real name: Samuel Clemens) is widely regarded as one of the greatest American writers in history. From his timeless work like classics The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel starring the now-mythical character Huckleberry Finn, the former riverboat pilot-turned-author entertained with his ability to mix wit, political satire, and vernacular. The great author William Faulkner would later call him "the father of American literature".

The authors of the King James Bible (written 1604-1611)

Since 1611, the King James Bible has sold over one billion copies, making it one of the greatest selling books of all time (the Bible, in general, has sold over five billion copies and is regarded as the greatest selling book of all time). From the KJB, we've received words like "peacemaker" and "scapegoat". The importance of this edition of the holy Christian text lies in its role in aiding the unity between England and Scotland, while enabling the easy proliferation of its religious message with the people in a manner they could understand. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt once called the KJB "the most democratic book in the world", acknowledging it as a book for the meek and downtrodden. (One should also credit the cultural impact of the Gutenberg Bible and its associated printing press for revolutionising the spread of English text, as well as all subsequent editions of the Holy Bible.)

Did we miss your favorite writer? Who else do you think helped shape the English language? Let us know on our Facebook page and “like” TELC English for more articles on language and culture!

Picture: (c) Fotolia, connel_design

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