Literature & Language

jaferr's picture
Throughout the history of literature, popular writings have helped to shape and form the structures and syntax of the modern languages that we know today.  Modern languages are constantly changing and evolving as a result of spoken or colloquial phrases being used in popular literature.  Through literature, these terms are spread and become familiar to the general population of speakers, and this can cause such drastic changes in the structure of a language that it may become unrecognizable after only a few centuries.  The two best and most dramatic examples of literature that has caused an evolution of the language in which it was written are the works of Shakespeare and Dante's Commedia.  Both Shakespeare and Dante, through their literature, dramatically changed the English and Italian languages, and set them on a path of evolution that has led to the modern state of both languages today.

Shakespeare's works are widely recognized as the most influential literature in the English language, and are studied worldwide.  It is save to say that every student in an English-speaking country has studied at least one of Shakespeare's plays, and the public school system that I was a part of devoted two full years of English classes to studying Shakespeare's most famous plays.  Although reading Shakespeare now is difficult because of how the English language has evolved since the time when he was writing, much of the grammatical structure is similar to that of modern English.  In fact, English grammar and spelling were less standardized in Shakespeare's time than they are now, and it his structure and use of language helped to shape modern English (David).  Shakespeare's literary and linguistic influence can be seen in the works of other acclaimed authors.  Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner were both influenced by Shakespeare's works, as well as Herman Melville's character Captain Ahab, who is a classic tragic hero inspired by King Lear.  Charles Dickens often quoted Shakespeare and drew twenty-five of his titles from Shakespeare's works (Gager).

Many expressions and phrases that we still use in daily speech are taken from Shakespeare's works.  Although it is not clear whether or not he came up with these phrases on his own, Shakespeare was certainly the first to take these possibly already existing colloquial expressions and use them in a literary context (Vernon).  As a result, these expressions became popular through dissemination of Shakespeare's literature, and many of them are still in use today.  Phrases such as "full circle," "neither rhyme nor reason," "seen better days," "strange bedfellows," "a spotless reputation," and "eaten out of house and home" all made their first documented appearances in some of Shakespeare's plays, and are still widely in use today.  That the popularity of each of these expressions can be traced back to the works of a single author shows the strength of influence that literature can have on the evolution of language.

Similarly, Dante is viewed as the most important writer in the Italian language, and his Commedia is considered to be the most important literary work in the Italian language.  As an Italian major, every class I have taken has made reference to Dante's Commedia, and studying abroad in Italy, I learned that the Commedia is not only constantly referenced in the academic world, but also in everyday situations.  Anyone who was educated within the Italian school system has memorized the opening lines of the Commedia.  Primo Levi, an Italian author who spent a year in Auschwitz and later wrote about his experiences, compares Auschwitz to the circles of hell in Dante's Inferno and uses this structure in his novel I Sommersi e i Salvati.  While I was studying Primo Levi in a course that the majority of students completed in English, many of these students without a background in Italian literature did not understand why a Jewish author would take so many structural cues from and make so many references to a decidedly Christian text.  These students had a hard time grasping the fact that Dante's Commedia is so pervasive and so omnipresent in Italian culture that it was not strange at all for this to occur, and that instead it would be stranger for a piece of Italian literature to have not been influenced by Dante.

Before Dante wrote his Commedia in the early 1300's, there was no universal Italian language that was spoken and understood throughout the peninsula.  Instead, each city-state had its own dialect-all of these dialects were Latin-based and were thought of as "vulgar" versions of the language.  Written works were written in Latin, and only those who knew Latin had the privilege of being able to read the literature of the time (Gordon).  Dante Alighieri, when writing the Commedia, combined the Tuscan dialect that he spoke with certain aspects of the Sicilian dialect, which was a revolutionary idea at the time.  The idea that literature should be written in the vernacular was entirely new, and the publication of the Commedia in the Tuscan dialect was essential to the formation of what we now know as the modern Italian language.  Although dialects are still spoken throughout Italy, the Italian taught in schools and spoken throughout the country is still the Italian that Dante popularized with his Commedia: the Tuscan dialect (Gordon).

The influence of seemingly distant literary works on modern language is striking when seen from this point of view.  Dante and Shakespeare both almost single-handedly set their languages on the trajectory that led to the states of those two languages today, and their influence on the evolution of each language is still strongly felt.

David, Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2001).

Gager, Valerie L. Shakespeare and Dickens: The Dynamics of Influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1996).

Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Fifteenth Edition. Dallas, TX: SIL International (2005).

Vernon, Jennifer. "Shakespeare's Coined Words Now Common Currency." National Geographic News. 22 Apr. 2004.


Anne Dalke's picture



What is most striking to me about this paper is its insistence that “Dante and Shakespeare both almost single-handedly set their languages on [their modern] trajectory.” I’d like to understand better how you see that factor, of single causation, in light of the larger discussion we’ve been having in this class about the complex system that is evolution, which has so many multiple factors always in play. Is your essay a challenge to that story? A turn in its trajectory?

You present Shakespeare and Dante as if they appear, individually, independent of culture, and act (like skyhooks??) to alter it. But both arose from a complex cultural nexus, and were each surely only one factor among many in the evolution of language. (See one of your classmates’ papers, on The Merging and Divergence of Evolving Languages,
, for some insight into these complexities…)

I guess my next biggest question is one of causation. You emphasize how importance Shakespeare holds in the canon of English literature, and the similar position Dante occupies in Italian. Is it because they are so important that they have become so influential in the development of their respective languages? Or is it because they have been so influential that they are so important?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.