English Day - Origin and Significance

English Day - Origin and Significance

  • Arya Vishwaroop
    Arya Vishwaroop

Introduction

English Day, or English Language Day, is celebrated globally on the 23rd of April every year on the death anniversary of legendary playwright William Shakespeare. The history of English Day is actually not that old - it was actually celebrated for the first time in 2010. This was because the United Nations decided to honor the six official languages of the same with a special day dedicated to raising awareness about the culture, history, and achievements of these languages. Therefore, English Day is celebrated along with Arabic Language Day, Chinese Language Day, French Language Day, Russian Language Day, and Spanish Language Day.

Why is English Day Celebrated on William Shakespeare’s Death Anniversary?

William Shakespeare, nicknamed the Bard of Avon, is one of the most esteemed writers of all time. His dramas are considered evergreen and have been adapted multiple times in multiple languages all over the world. They are so culturally and theatrically relevant that they inspire theatre, cinema, and the arts even today in the 21st century. He not only revolutionized playwriting, but also the English language as a whole. He introduced so many new words and phrases in the English language that he became instrumental in changing English into the form it is in today.

Common Words and Phrases Shakespeare Invented That is in Use Even Today

Common Words

  • Admirable
  • Auspicious
  • Baseless
  • Barefaced
  • Belongings
  • Dawn
  • Dexterous
  • Dwindle
  • Hostile
  • Lonely
  • Ode
  • Overblown
  • Sanctimonious
  • Watchdog

Phrases

  • All that glitters is not gold
  • As good luck would have it…
  • Break the ice
  • Come what may…
  • Devil incarnate
  • Fair play
  • Laughing stock
  • In a pickle
  • It’s Greek to me
  • Skim Milk
  • Too much of a good thing
  • Wear your heart on your sleeve
  • What’s done is done
  • With bated breath

A Short History of the English Language

English started off as a Germanic dialect brought to the British Isles by groups of settlers, namely the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes among others. The 2 main tribes, the Angles and Saxons, intermixed and formed the Anglo-Saxon version of English now known as Old English. The largest work written in Old English is Beowulf, which is an epic poem.

However, in 1066, the Normans invaded the British Isles and took over. The French-speaking Normans brought clergymen who spoke Latin as well. This brought the Romance languages i.e. languages like French, Latin, Italian,etc. into the English language. French and Latin words began to be considered classy and a symbol of power because only the aristocracy used Latin and French. The peasants and Anglo-Saxons used simple Old English. This is why commonly occurring words like bed, leg, skin, root, etc. have Anglo-Saxon roots, and more sophisticated words such as cordial, sovereign, etc. have French and Latin roots. Since people wanted to sound more sophisticated and authoritative, English speakers mixed the aristocracy languages into old English and this became middle English. To the native English speaker, even middle English, spoken from around 1100-1500 CE, would still be quite difficult to understand.

By 1450, William Shakespeare had come into the picture and completely revolutionized the English language. This, coupled with the Renaissance of Classical Learning, led to the reimagining of the usage of words and phrases, with the addition of new ones, which led to the rise of Modern English. With the colonization of different countries by Britain, other languages mixed like Hindi, Arabic, Persian, etc. mixed freely with English and formed new English words.

The Influence of Shakespeare on Art in the West

Shakespeare’s work completely reinvented theatre, language, writing style, and art in general dramatically. Here are a few examples:

  • Until ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was written, romance was not considered a worthy topic for tragedy.
  • Soliloquies, which were previously used to convey information about characters or events, were used more often to explore the mental state of the characters.
  • American novelist Herman Melville owes a lot to Shakespeare for the soliloquies he has written
  • Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick is a classic tragic hero, inspired by King Lear
  • Researchers have identified over 20,000 pieces of music linked to the works of Shakespeare
  • He inspired several painters, mainly among the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites
  • Famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud drew on the psychology used in the characters of Hamlet as examples of his theories of human nature
  • He standardized English grammar, spelling, and pronunciation through his work in writing and theatre.

Conclusion

Shakespeare, to this day, holds the Guinness World Record as the world's best-selling playwright, with sales of his work believed to have sold over 4 billion copies in the almost 400 years after his death. He is also the third most translated author in history after Agatha Christie and Jules Verne, so it can be said that Shakespeare is the right person whose death anniversary can be celebrated as English Day.