Literary language shapers

Last month saw the formal re-interment of Spain’s most revered author, Miguel de Cervantes.

For over 300 years, the precise location of the remains of Cervantes had remained a mystery after their removal in 1673 from their original location at the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid during building work. At some point later, his remains were returned to the convent but never properly marked.

After an 18-month project funded by the Spanish government, the remains of Cervantes and his wife, Catalina de Salazar were rediscovered in a long forgotten crypt deep within the convent.

Cervantes is credited with producing the very first modern European novel, being one of the very first novels to contain a fictional narrative in prose.

His influence was not solely confined to the literary world, Freud was said to have based his psychoanalysis techniques on “El coloquio de los perros.” However it was Cervantes’ use of language that left the deepest mark on the Spanish psyche.

So closely tied is Cervantes to the language of Spain that Spanish is often referred to as la lengua de Cervantes (The Spanish to English translation of which is “the language of Cervantes”) and the Cervantes Institute, a worldwide official governmental body concerned with the teaching and promotion of the Spanish language and culture proudly bears his name.

Two Gentlemen of Madrid?

As linguists, we couldn’t help but draw parallels with a few other literary greats whose works did so much to shape modern language.

One author who is inextricably linked to Cervantes is Shakespeare.

Often mistakenly believed to have died on the same day (both writers were recorded as having died on the 23rd April 1616 – however, England was still using the Julian calendar, making Shakespeare’s death 10 days later) nevertheless, UNESCO appointed the 23rd April as the International day of the book.

The link between both authors is much stronger than purely close coincidence.

Disregarding the popular but wildly incredulous theory that both authors were in fact one in the same man, Shakespeare left a vast and lasting influence on the English language, just as Cervantes had in his native Spain.

In Samuel Johnson’s hugely influential A Dictionary of the English Language, Shakespeare is the most quoted author and 2,000 words credited to Shakespeare appear in the modern English dictionary. While it’s unlikely that Cervantes would have been aware of Shakespeare’s work, there is strong evidence that Shakespeare read and admired Don Quixote.

The play Cardenio (based on the character from Don Quixote) was performed by Shakespeare’s theatre company The King’s Men in 1613, however the text from the play has never been found.

Divine intervention

The shaping of language from literary figures was not purely a 17th Century phenomenon.

At the start of the 14th Century, the writer Dante Alighieri produced his epic work Comedia which was written in his native Florentine dialect would prove to be so popular throughout Italy that Dante’s written dialect would become regarded as the canonical standard across Italy.

Considered the father of the Italian language, Dante managed to linguistically unite a country that struggled with mutually unintelligible dialects and no true lingua franca.

While perhaps not as renowned for his literary work, Martin Luther’s translation of the bible into his Saxon dialect spread rapidly throughout Germany, thanks in part to the modern printing press and to his use of the vernacular to translate, making the bible more accessible to the population.

Similar to Dante’s Italy, Germany was made up of hundreds of dialects that were mutually unintelligible, dividing the nation into very separate states.

The classicist

It is impossible to talk about literary greats influencing language without a nod to Homer.

Homeric Greek was the Greek used in the Iliad and Odyssey and later went on to form the basis of Epic Greek, the language of epic poetry that would evolve into Koine and Medieval Greek.

When you consider the effect that these five men had on hundreds of millions of speakers worldwide, it’s truly incredible.

Whether through religious or cultural appetites, the desire to communicate and understand concepts shaped an evolution and standardisation of language that lasts to this day.

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