Four of the Most Unexpected Crafters of the English Language

One can be forgiven for assuming that English was crafted in a lab.  The stereotypical English teacher, pacing yardstick-in-hand in front of the chalkboard, readjusting glasses on the bridge of their nose ("Actually, it's 'whom,' not 'who'") can certainly give off the air of a backroom chemist, insisting on the rules of our grammar like they're immutable laws of the universe.  So rigidly are its rules honored, it can seem that the English language was carefully and intentionally crafted in a controlled environment by academics and professionals.  It's one reason why foreigners consider it so difficult to learn.  So, it's often a shock when one studies the history of English and realizes that our language as it today exists is the result of rule-breaking and arbitrary creative thinking on the part of individual outsiders and inimitable characters.  Here are some:

1. Samuel Johnson

By all accounts, there was nothing charming in the physical appearance or presentation of 18th-century English man of letters Samuel Johnson. Posthumously diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, gout, depression, and a host of other physical, neurological, and psychic disorders, Johnson was often mistaken for a disturbed vagrant or, as his biographer puts it, "an ideot [sic]," for his legion physical tics and grimaces. He attended university for only one year. Still, Johnson's influence on English is undeniable. His impact is maybe most realized in his production of "A Dictionary of the English Language," an endeavor which took him seven years to complete. It was a project which he undertook alone, and though not the first of its kind, it was universally accepted as the most significant until the production of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later. Before Johnson's dictionary, English's rules of grammar and vocabulary were far more regionally dependent. Johnson's dictionary became the universally accepted authority not through careful study of the history or origin of words, but by their most common everyday use. How did a word appear in conversation? In poetry and literature? Johnson's loyalty to common use of a word over its history effects how we use our language even today.

2. William Shakespeare

The Bard needs no introduction. His words have been translated into nearly every modern language, and his dramatic works are performed on every inhabited continent. His themes are universal and timeless. His genius with the written word has earned him the near-universal distinction of greatest writer that the English language ever produced. Lesser-known, perhaps, is that Shakespeare was not only a shaper of language, but also a creator. According to Shakespeare Online, The Bard invented about 1,700 words that are today part of our vernacular: bedroom, rant, advertising, birthplace -- words that it is impossible not to use. Born in a market town a hundred miles out of London, educated in a second-rate grammar school and beginning his career in theater as the stable boy, it is hard to imagine a more remote beginning for someone who would rise to heights so influential on how we today speak daily.

3. Joseph Conrad

As we've learned in the case of Shakespeare, a language responds to how it is styled by its artists. Literature was, for centuries and millennia, the fastest way to change how language was used in everyday circles on a massive scale. It's here where we can see the influence of Joseph Conrad, a 19th-century novelist whose treatment of the English language has influenced nearly every major writer since, from Hunter S. Thompson to Salman Rushdie. Even filmmakers have followed his lead: Francis Ford Coppola's film Apocalypse Now is based on one of his novels. Here's the catch: Joseph Conrad did not learn English until he was in his twenties. Born Jozef Korzeniowski in the Russian Empire, his native languages were Polish and French. Despite this, he decided that his late third language would be the best medium for his literary stylings, and he brought with him a foreign temperament which has been present in our literature ever since.

4. King Henry VIII

Famous multiple-divorcé, first Supreme Head of the Church of England -- mover and shaper of the English language? A great historical challenger to Samuel Johnson's later title as first standardizer of spoken English is Henry VIII. In 1542, Henry standardized the use of a single Latin Grammar textbook, Rudimenta Grammatices, in all schools across the country. It would remain the standard, with some revisions, for 300 years after. To show the expanse of this book's influence: Shakespeare referred to it in two of his plays. And art was not the only place where this book appeared. In 1586, the first academic work on English grammar appeared, entitled Pamphlet for Grammar, and its content was written directly to imitate the Latin grammar in Rudimenta Grammatices. Had Henry selected a different textbook for use in schools, the grammar of our language in the decades following and even today would be drastically different.

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Dave Child

Dave is the founder of Readable.io, and has been building websites since the early 90s. He's one of those fortunate people who gets to do what he loves for a living.

       


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