By: David P. Cantrell
English is so rich with descriptive words, many absorbed from other languages, that it may be uniquely qualified as a storyteller’s language. Modern English is an amalgamation of multiple languages, as exemplified in the title of William W. Smith’s book published in 1895: A Complete Etymology of the English Language: containing the Anglo-Saxon, French, Dutch, German, Welsh, Danish, Gothic, Swedish, Gaelic, Italian, Latin, and Greek Roots, and the English Words Derived Therefrom Accurately Spelled, Accented, and Defined— (https://archive.org/details/completeetymolog00smitrich). Modern etymologists might argue that Mr. Smith’s title is Eurocentric, given the influence of Great Britain’s colonies on the “Mother Tongue,” but I’m sure you get my point, English has a cosmopolitan lexicon.
Does a multicultural lexicon make it the premier language for writer? Perhaps not, but consider my next point.
William Shakespeare was the greatest writer to ever live, and he was English, ergo English is the greatest language. I can’t deny or confirm that he was actually the greatest, but I’ve been persuaded he’s a worthy candidate.
Amanda Mabillard in, Why Study Shakespeare?, makes several compelling arguments to support her title. This is her fourth argument:
“Many of the common expressions now thought to be clichés were Shakespeare’s creations. Chances are you use Shakespeare’s expressions all the time even though you may not know it is the Bard you are quoting. You may think that fact is neither here nor there, but that’s the short and the long of it. Bernard Levin said it best in the following quote about Shakespeare’s impact on our language:
‘If you cannot understand my argument, and declare “It’s Greek to me”, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise – why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high time and that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I were dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens! but me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare. (The Story of English, 145)’” (http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/whystudyshakespeare.html)
Alright, Shakespeare was hot stuff, but there have been many great non-English stories. I agree whole heartedly. Anna Karenia by the Russian, Tolstoy, was a masterpiece by most accounts. While not a novel, as far as I know, the film story, Seven Samurai is a Japanese tale that deserves high praise. Personally, I consider Shadow of the Wind to be a great story and it was written by Carlos Ruiz Zafron, in Spanish. (I read a translation.) I grant you great stories can be told in any language.
Is my premise defeated? English is no better than any other language for storytelling.
I don’t think so, at least not if you agree that writers want their stories to be read by as many people as possible. Why would that make English the apex language for them? Because, it’s the only global language. It has fewer native speakers (356 million) than Mandarin (848 million) and Spanish (399 million), but that doesn’t tell the whole story. English is used as a second language by 505 million people and is known as a foreign language by another 750 million. Without a doubt, English is the dominant economic, diplomatic and scientific language today. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_total_number_of_speakers)
So, I’m standing by my contention: English is The Writer’s Language.
David P. Cantrell is an author and a member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.