Richard Nisley

A Million-to-One Shot
History - World Released - Apr 21, 2019
In the play "Pygmalion" (a.k.a. "My Fair Lady"), act I, professor Henry Higgins says to the flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whose English is uproariously atrocious: "Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the King James Bible."

What William Shakespeare, John Milton, the King James Bible, and Elizabethan writers in general did was transform the provincial tongue of English commoners into a widely praised and respected language. Put another way, they took the language of the gutter and made something grand of it. At the time, Latin was the language of education, of law, of science, and of religion, and French was the language of diplomacy. In fact, for three hundred years the language of the English Court was French.

The Elizabethans not only made English respectable, they launched it onto the world stage. Today, English is spoken by nearly one billion people. According to the authors of "The Story of English" (Robert McCrum, William Cran, and Robert MacNeil), English is now "the language of the planet, the first truly global language."

When Julius Caesar landed in Britain nearly two thousand years ago, English did not exist. What would become English arrived with the invading Anglo-Saxons in AD 450. They spoke "Englisc," which is incomprehensible to our modern ears. The odds of this language becoming a world language was about a million-to-one. By AD 1000, the Island was known as Englaland, or the land of the Angles. They were an agricultural people. Everyday words such as sheep, shepherd, ox, earth, plough, swine, dog, wood, field, and work come from "Englisc." It is nearly impossible to write a modern English sentence without using words that are not Anglo-Saxon in origin.

In 1940, when the world was at war, and Winston Churchill wanted to rally the hearts and minds of the English people, he did so with Anglo-Saxon words: "We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets; we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender." All but one word is Anglo-Saxon in origin ("surrender" is the exception, which is Norman-French). When Churchill famously said, "The short words are best, and the old words, when short, are best of all," he was speaking of Anglo-Saxon words.

When Christianity arrived in Anglo-Saxon Britain in the sixth century, Latin arrived with it. According the authors, Latin strengthened and enriched "Englisc" with new words, more than 400 of which survive to this day. It also gave English the capacity to express abstract ideas. Now, there were Latin, Greek and Hebrew words, such as angel, disciple, litany, martyr, mass, relic, shrift, shrine and psalm to broaden thought and enrich conversation. The words, God, heaven and hell are "Englisc" words which, with the arrival of Christianity, became charged with deeper meaning. According to "The Story of English," the power of English to express the same thought in either an early vernacular or more elaborate Latinate style is one of its most remarkable characteristics, and one which enables English to have a unique subtlety and flexibility of meaning.

In the year 1611 William Shakespeare began writing his last play, "The Tempest," the same year the King James Version of the Bible was published. As alluded to earlier, both are considered masterpieces of English literature. Many English phrases we commonly use originated either with Shakespeare or with the KJV Bible. For example, "It's Greek to me" was coined by Shakespeare, and "The handwriting is on the wall" is from the KJV Bible.

Shakespeare had an extraordinary ability to spin off memorable word combinations. Just one play–"Hamlet"–contains all of these:

Frailty, thy name is woman . . . Something is rotten in the state of Denmark . . . The time is out of joint . . . Brevity is the soul of wit . . . More matter with less art . . . The play is the thing . . . Though this be madness, yet there is method in it . . . To be or not to be: that is the question . . . A hit, a very palpable hit.

English phrases that originated with the King James Bible include: apple of the eye . . . the salt of the earth . . . eat, drink, and be merry . . . the handwriting is on the wall . . . the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak . . . a multitude of sins . . . twinkling of an eye . . . gave up the ghost . . . judge not that you be not judged . . . the powers that be . . . a man after his own heart . . . the living God . . . the gate of heaven . . . a land flowing with milk and honey . . . to fall by the sword . . . a stranger in a strange land . . . as the lord liveth.

The author of "Pygmalion" was an Irishman who obviously had a deep love of English, as evident when he wrote: "Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the King James Bible." And so it is for all of us who speak English.

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