On 23rd April, people all over the world will be celebrating the life of William Shakespeare, who died on this date in 1616 (and supposedly, was also born on it in 1564). As well as marking the passing of one of the greatest writers the world has ever seen, it is also a chance to celebrate his native tongue – the English language – as it has been chosen by the UN as the date of International English Language Day, one of six annual events celebrating each of the body’s official languages in turn.
We’ve noted a number of times that English is considered the ‘world language’ or lingua franca, with influence spreading from the UK, Ireland and the United States, all of which have produced great works of literature in the language. Indeed, it has a great poetic aspect and power to move, from ‘It is a fact universally acknowledged’ to ‘Do not go gently into that good night.’
Yet the most frequently used English words in Britain probably include ‘sorry’ and ‘tea?’
It’s a language well worth celebrating, from its roots in almost unrecognisable Anglo Saxon (‘Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga’!) by way of Norman French (‘pork’, ‘beef’, ‘demesne’), Yiddish (‘glitch’) Polari (‘camp’) and many others. To quote Shakespeare, ‘They have been at a great feast of languages, and stol’n the scraps.’
Shakespeare enriched the language considerably himself, with a number of English words and tracing their first known use to the pages of his works: among others, today’s English speakers owe him gloomy, laughable, majestic, lonely, radiance, hurry, generous, frugal, critical, courtship, zany, undress, and rant.
Above all else, English Language Day is a great excuse to find an English book – whether ‘Where’s Spot?’ or ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ – and revel in the wonderful diversity and passion of our language. You may even want to pick up a Shakespeare play!