English 101: The Evolution of English, from Shakespeare to Sitcom

By Alanna Quinn, RFP Coordinator

Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?

By: William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Today, April 23, 2019, would have been William Shakespeare’s 455th Birthday, and while it may seem that as each year passes, his work plays less and less of a role in our lives, his influence on the English language remains strong. Shakespeare had a command of the English language that surpassed many other philosophers and writers of his time. To properly express feeling in his plays he had to borrow words from other languages and was also known for turning nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, and adding prefixes and suffixes to alter the meaning of specific words. If these methods of morphology were not enough, Shakespeare would simply invent a new word. Some examples of phrases that are still heard today, but were first coined by Shakespeare include ‘in a pickle,’ ‘wild goose chase,’ ‘heart of gold,’ ‘forever and a day,’ and ‘break the ice,’ just to name a few.

Present day English speakers have followed and continued to implement some of these Shakesperean practice, such as verbing nouns, and creating new words. Examples from the last 50 years include:

  • Google (noun/verb)
  • Vlogging/blogging
  • Feminism
  • MMS
  • Sitcom
  • SIM card
  • Transsexual

English is the Universal Language of the 20th and 21st century; commonly referred to as a lingua franca, or the common language, English is the native language of 375 million people, as well as an official second language across 55 countries, with over 1.5 billion people using it across various methods of communication, through art, over the internet, and as part of news. English is also 1 of 6 official languages of the United Nations, and as such is given an official Language Day to acknowledge the language’s historical and continued significance. With Shakespeare playing such a critical role in the evolution of the English, there is no day more fitting for English Language Day than Shakespeare’s birthday.

Interestingly, the UN also commemorates the importance of the Spanish language on April 23rd, marking the death day of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, widely believed to be the best Spanish writer in history. Spanish is the primary language of more than 20 countries in the world. Both English and Spanish continue to evolve based on regionalisms, globalization, and technology.