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Language and literature: The Siamese twins Dr Rashid Askari

Language and literature: The Siamese twins Dr Rashid Askari

To weigh up the importance of language and literature separately seems to be a chicken and egg problem. Despite knowing it full well that language is the vehicle for literature, it remains a vexed question to determine whether language works as a catalyst all by itself for the growth and development of literature or not or vice versa. As a matter of fact, language is never an isolated entity, self-born and self-developed. Nor is it a readily available tree in the fullest blossom from which people pluck flowers and weave wreaths of literature with considerable ease. It is rather a stream that keeps on flowing with different currents and undercurrents. These ?currents? and ?undercurrents? do not always spring from the stream itself. They rather come from other sources and are harmoniously assimilated with it, and thus is enriched the language. This is true in the case of all modern major languages in the world that they are considerably nourished by the literatures they produce.
What we now call modern English language has got little to do with Old English or Anglo-Saxon English. It has rather evolved from the Late Middle English Period ?- about 1400 to 1500 ?- which was characterized by the dissemination of the London literary dialect, and the gradual segregation between the Scottish dialect and the other northern dialects. During that time, the basic lines of inflexion (a change in the form of a word, especially in the end, according to its grammatical function in a sentence) as they appear in Modern English, were first fixed. This Late Middle English language has traveled a long way of about five centuries and come down to this present form. It is not an unaffected development. It is rather the progeny of a long line of literary efforts and movements. Among others, the Late Middle English (1400-1500) authors, like Geoffrey Chaucer; the Tudor Era (1500-1558); Humanist authors, like Thomas More and John Skelton; Elizabethan (1558-1603) High Renaissance authors, like Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sidney and William Shakespeare; Jacobean (1603-1625) Mannerist, Metaphysical and Devotional poets like, John Donne, George Herbert and Emilia Lanyer; Caroline (1625-1649) poets, like John Ford and John Milton; the Commonwealth, and the Protectorate (1649-1660) authors like Andrew Marvell and Thomas Hobbes; Restoration (1660-1700) authors, like John Dryden; the Augustan (1700-1800); Enlightenment and neo-classical authors, like Alexander Pope, Jonathan swift and Samuel Johnson; the Romantic (1785-1830) poets like William Wordsworth, ST Coleridge, Lord Byron, PB Shelley and John Keats; the Victorian (1830-1901) authors like Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson and Matthew Arnold; Modern (1901-1960) Edwardian and Georgian authors like GM Hopkins, HG Wells, James Joyce, DH Lawrence and TS Eliot; and the Postmodern and Contemporary (1960? ) authors like Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, John Fowles, Don DeLillo, AS Byatt have contributed a great deal to the development of English language. They have enriched the English language in their own sweet ways by inventing new words and phrases and giving new meanings to old ones. Many of them have tremendously influenced the later writing process and even day to day speech.
As far as neologism is concerned, Gavin Alexander, lecturer in English at Cambridge University has searched through the entire Oxford English Dictionary and found that Shakespeare introduced some 229 words; Ben Jonson 558, John Donne 342 and Milton 630 words to English language.Here follows some select examples.

Common English words and phrases coined by Shakespeare
William Shakespeare has been credited with coining many words, because no word existed in his day to express what he wanted to say. Among these words are dauntless, fashionable, alligator, bedroom, pander, outbreak, laughingstock, the naked truth, amazement, leapfrog, madcap, frugal, articulate, immediacy, advertising, investment, puke, and zany. The phrases Shakespeare coined include, among others, a sorry state (meaning an unwelcome aspect or feature, Origin: Macbeth), a foregone conclusion (meaning an inevitable conclusion, Origin: Othello), a sea change (meaning a radical change, Origin: The Tempest , heart?s content (meaning one?s complete satisfaction, Origin: Henry VI, Part II), pound of flesh (meaning something that is owed and ruthlessly required to be paid back and Origin: Merchant of Venice), Brevity is the soul of wit (meaning making further explanation redundant and Origin: Hamlet) All that glitters (glisters) is not gold (meaning a showy article may not necessarily be valuable and Origin: The Merchant of Venice).
Milton applied his knowledge of Latin and other languages to making new words. He would frequently stretch the words beyond their ordinary limits, ie he used infuriate as an adjective or concise and epistle as verbs. His 135 words begin with the prefix un-, which suggests the poet?s love of oppositions and unrelenting nature. Many words are adjectives derived from verbs, such as chastening and civilising. Some are related to his subject matter, like adamantean, arch-fiend, pandemonium, and Satanic; or divorceable and unconjugal; or liturgical; or pedagogism; or prelatise, prelatish, prelatry, and prelatically. Milton, according to Gravin Alexander, was credited with the creation of the words? love-lorn, besottedly, ecstatic, endearing, sensuous, debauchery, depravity, extravagance, flutte, cooking, hurried , well-balanced, well-spiced, well-stocked, economise, half-starved, unhealthily, padlock, untack, unfurl, acclaim, ungenerous, dismissive, criticise, disregard, awe-struck, jubilant, enjoyable, exhilarating, stunning , terrific, literalism literalists, complacency, attacks, airborne, exploding, far-sighted ,irresponsible, unprincipled, vested, undesirable, persuasively, unconvincing, unaccountable, hamstring, chastening, unintended, enviable, defensively, embellishing, beleaguered, embittered, enlightening, civilizing, hot-headed, cherubic, loquacious, impassive, moonstruck, unadventurous, adjustments, idol-worship, fragrances, frameworks, helpfulness self-delusion, pettifoggery, full-grown, incompleteness, belatedness, circumscribing, expanses, reforming, didactic, slow-moving, serried, surrounding, unoriginal, echoing, awaited, discontinuous, unexaminable.
The first standard dictionary of the English language by Samuel Johnson titled ?A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) contained 42,773 words in the first edition. An important innovation of Johnson?s dictionary was to illustrate the meanings of the words by literary quotations, the number of which was around 114,000. The most frequently cited authors were Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. An example: OPULENCE: Wealth; riches; affluence. Usage: ?There in full opulence a banker dwelt, / Who all the joys and pangs of riches felt; / His sideboard glitter?d with imagin?d plate, / And his proud fancy held a vast estate.? ?- Jonathan Swift
This is not only true in any past practices, but also in the present ones. The writers, poets, and even critics are creating new words and phrases to suit their subjects. There are many words used in many authoritative works, which are not supported by the conventional dictionaries. If one pores over these books only with their traditional grammar and dictionary, they sure will not be able to read between the lines. They have to have pretty acquaintance with the prevalent mode of writing, which can be earned through reading contemporary literature. This does not, however, undervalue the importance of learning grammar. As a matter of fact, with the rudimentary knowledge of grammar, one has to go through the vaster world of literature with a view to achieving a good command of the language. The introduction of four- skill ?approach to language teaching methodology is testimony to the fact.
We may safely draw the conclusion from our discussion that hundreds of thousands of English words, phrases, idioms, collocations, proverbs and fixed expressions have been and are being coined, recast, and inflected by the men of letters. A word can have its finest expression at the hands of an author as was suggested by Coleridge who had called poetry ??best words in their best order??. The authors are, on one hand, making the better use of language and the language, on the other, is creating new authors maintaining the continuity of the cycle of interdependencies. This is how language and literature are interdependently growing like the Siamese twins.
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. E-mail:
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