To mark UN English and Spanish Language Days on 23 April, Alex and Daisy look at the remarkable influence of Shakespeare and Cervantes on the English and Spanish languages.

UN Language Days

Did you know that in 2010 the United Nations (UN) established a language day for each of its six official languages? Each language day is an opportunity to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity in the UN and around the world.

UN English and Spanish Language Days both fall on 23 April, the anniversary of the death of the English playwright William Shakespeare, and, coincidentally, the burial date of Spanish man of letters Miguel de Cervantes, both in 1616. 23 April is also UNESCO World Book Day.

Over 400 years since their deaths, both Shakespeare and Cervantes have left a lasting legacy on world literature and the language we use today.

Shakespeare’s literary and linguistic legacy - Alex Paramour

Shakespeare’s legacy is all around us. His poems and plays have been read and performed continuously since the late 1500s and remain as popular as ever. But his influence extends far beyond performances and adaptations of his work. It’s deeply embedded in the novels and poems we read, in the films and TV series we watch and in the English we use every day.

Shakespeare’s literary impact

Although Shakespeare often borrowed his plots from classical and historical sources, what he did with them was revolutionary. He drew out timeless themes – love, grief, jealousy, ambition – and posed nuanced problems that get to the heart of the human condition.

He created characters of unprecedented psychological depth and complexity. And he blended genre conventions in ways that would have surprised Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences. The fusion of comedy and tragedy may be familiar territory for today’s novelists and screenwriters, but Shakespeare did it first.

Think of almost any work of English-language fiction of the last 400 years and you’ll see something of Shakespeare’s literary legacy reflected in it. Would the novels of Dickens have existed without Shakespeare? How many rom-coms were inspired by Beatrice and Benedick’s witty repartee in Much Ado About Nothing? Would we have Succession without King Lear?

Shakespeare’s use of language

Another major reason for Shakespeare’s enduring influence is, of course, his innovative use of the English language. Over 2,000 words have been traced back to his work and hundreds of these are still in use today, including excellent, critical, vast and lonely. He’s also thought to have introduced many popular idioms and phrases – foregone conclusion, be in a pickle, foul play and flesh and blood to name a few.

But as the linguist David Crystal points out, trying to quantify Shakespeare’s contribution to our vocabulary provides a limited – and probably misleading – measure of his linguistic legacy. Just as important was his highly creative use of other aspects of the language, such as grammar and phonology.

Perhaps what really explains Shakespeare’s profound influence on our literature and language, then, is the way he dared to challenge and break the rules in so many ways at once.

Cervantes and Día del Idioma Español en las Naciones Unidas - Daisy Zhu

Miguel de Cervantes is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the Spanish language.

He has had such an impact on the Spanish language that Spanish is often referred to as la lengua de Cervantes (the language of Cervantes).

Every year the Spanish Ministry of Culture awards the Cervantes Prize, the most prestigious literary prize in the Spanish language. And the Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute) helps to spread the Spanish language and culture to more than 40 countries in the world. Cervantes has even made his way into Spanish popular culture as a recurring character in the television show El ministerio del tiempo (The Ministry of Time).

Don Quixote

Cervantes may not have contributed as many words to the Spanish language as Shakespeare did to English, but he is credited with words and expressions that even managed to find their way over to the English language. For example:

  • Quixotic: meaning idealistic, unrealistic or impractical, this word comes from the name of the protagonist in his most famous epic novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha, or Don Quixote. Don Quixote has been named one of the ‘Great Books of the Western World’ by Encyclopedia Britannica.
  • Tilting at windmills: meaning attacking imaginary enemies, this expression also comes from Don Quixote’s taking on windmills as giants and fighting against them.
  • The pot calling the kettle black: Dijo la sartén a la caldera, quítate allá ojinegra (The frying pan said to the cauldron, get out of here, black-eyed one.)
  • When one door is closed, another is opened: Cuando una puerta se cierra, otra se abre.

Cervantes’ influence on world literature

Cervantes is known to have had a major influence on English literature. 18th century English writer Henry Fielding specifically states in his novel Joseph Andrews that it’s "written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote". Graham Greene, the celebrated English novelist of the 20th century, also wrote a pastiche of Don Quixote and called it Monsignor Quixote, whose hero regards himself as a descendant of Don Quixote.

What’s not so well-known is that in 1922 an edition of Cervantes’s Don Quixote appeared in Mandarin Chinese. It was translated, or rather “trans-created”, by the Chinese scholar 林纾 (Lín shū), under the title 魔侠传 (Mó xiá zhuàn, Historia del caballero encantado, History of the Enchanted Knight). This creative version of Cervantes’s work, reinterpreted for Chinese readers, has now been translated into Spanish - a great example of Cervantes’s influence in the world.

If you’d like to improve your English and Spanish language skills, the Skills Centre runs 10-week English and Spanish courses each Semester and a British Studies course on Shakespeare for visiting and exchange students.

Posted in: British Studies, foreign languages, intercultural competence


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