If you were educated in English, then it’s highly likely you had to read Shakespeare at one point. Among the literary giants that comprise the canon of closely studied English literature, Shakespeare stands apart for his impact on the formation of the English language identity as we know it today.
It helps to remember that before he was around, the English language was not yet fully standardized. Maybe it’s because he was active at a time when the language was ready to solidify into a more consistent format, or maybe it’s because he was so prolific and influential that the English language just sort of snapped into place around the shape he gave it, or maybe (and most likely) due to a combination of these things, Shakespeare’s writing contributed a great deal to the standardization of grammar, spelling and vocabulary in English. He also invented 1,700 original words that are largely still in use, not to mention common idioms and expressions like “heart of gold,” “love is blind,” “the world is your oyster” and more.
As it turns out, other languages frequently have their own Shakespeares, or writers who exerted a hugely formative impact on the language as it exists today. Here are just a couple examples you can look to in order to deepen your understanding of another language.
4 Literary Giants Who Helped Make Their Language What It Is Today
Cervantes — Spanish
It’s not for nothing that Spanish is sometimes referred to as la lengua de Cervantes, or “the language of Cervantes.” Miguel de Cervantes set the standard for a great deal of Spanish literature going forward, most notably characterized by bright, vivid metaphors and playful turns of phrase. Some of the tradition’s archetypes and common tropes can also be traced back to his work, most notably Don Quixote.
A lot of words and popular phrases used today, not even in Spanish, but in English too, are also lifted directly from his work: “bigger fish to fry,” “proof is in the pudding,” “sky’s the limit” and “quixotic” are all his doing.
Pushkin — Russian
For someone who is widely credited as the father of the modern Russian language, Alexander Pushkin certainly got around (linguistically). He spoke as many as 15 other languages to varying degrees of fluency, and you could argue that this diversity of influences may have trickled down somewhat into the modern Russian literary language that Pushkin helped establish.
Pushkin is best known for elevating a more simplified form of Russian into literary prestige. Prior to his time, Russian literature was characterized by archaic, overly formal language. Also, Russian wasn’t considered a prestigious language the way that French was. Pushkin changed all of that by legitimizing the colloquial Russian spoken by everyday people. He also added many words to the language, including loan words from other languages, and he is responsible for the invention of many Russian proverbs.
Somewhat similar to Shakespeare, his work also established a lot of central themes that became hallmarks of Russian literature, like the choice between happiness and duty, and the plight of a low-ranking individual.
Dante — Italian
Dante Alighieri is hailed as the father of the Italian language, but he didn’t just turn vernacular language into an art form — his work marked a departure from Latin itself in the literary canon. At the time, educated people all wrote in Latin. However, Dante used his local Florentine dialect to write the Divine Comedy. Writers like Boccaccio and Petrarch followed his example. Soon, Florentine became the standardized form of the national language that bridged Italy’s various regional dialects.
Dante also played a role in the creation of Italian lexicon. Prior to his impact, it is claimed that 60 percent of the most essential Italian vocabulary was already in place, but by the end of the 1300s, the lexicon included 90 percent of the vocabulary essential to the modern language.
Dante’s justifications for writing in vernacular instead of Latin included an aesthetic preference, as well as a desire for his work to be accessible to as many people as possible and love for his own language.
Tagore — Bengali
Rabindranath Tagore had a similarly modernizing role to play in the tradition of Bengali literature. He introduced the use of colloquial Bengali into the literary tradition, a departure from traditional forms that were based on Sanskrit. Not only that, but he also introduced new prose and verse formats that were far less rigid than their classical predecessors.
His deeply human and poetic approach left a permanent imprint on Bengali culture, and a lot of the ideas about politics and culture that he introduced in his essays are still regularly quoted.
He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, but his largest impact is close to home. Three South Asian countries have adopted his songs as national anthems: India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.