Learning English through literature

Sunday, July 24th, 2011


Dr Rashid Askari

To weigh up the importance of language and literature in context seems to be a chicken and egg situation. Despite knowing 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 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 enrich 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 characterised 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 travelled 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, S.T. Coleridge, Lord Byron, P.B. 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 G. M. Hopkins, H. G. Wells, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot; and the Postmodern and Contemporary authors like Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, John Fowles, Don DeLillo, A.S. 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.


1. A sorry sight: Meaning an unwelcome aspect or feature.

2. A forgone conclusion: Meaning an inevitable conclusion.

3. A sea change: a radical change.

4. Heart’s content: to one’s complete satisfaction

5. Pound of flesh: something which is owed that is ruthlessly required to be paid back.


Shakespeare has not only coined words, he has coined proverbial phrases too.

1. Brevity is the soul of wit: Making further explanation redundant.

2. All that glitters (glisters) is not gold: a showy article may not necessarily be valuable.


Words coined by Milton


Milton applied his knowledge of Latin and other languages to making new words. He would frequently stretch the words beyond their ordinary limits, i.e. 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.


Gavin Alexander has beautifully described Milton’s coinages highlighted in bold and italicised letters. To quote:


“Without Milton, the love-lorn among us would not act besottedly; they would neither feel ecstatic nor find things endearing, or even sensuous.  But nor would there be a danger of a downward slide into debauchery or depravity, or some lesser sins, like extravagance, or having a flutter.


Without Milton there would be no cooking, nor snatching of a hurried lunch.  Meals (and other things) would not be well-balanced, or well-spiced, and cupboards would not be well-stocked.  But at least we would not know how to economise and could never be half-starved, or even eat unhealthily.


Without Milton, we would not padlock gates, or untack horses, or unfurl banners; there would be no acclaim, but neither would the ungenerous and dismissive among us criticise, which would be as well, since others would not know how to disregard.


Without Milton, our experiences would be less exciting.  We would not be awe-struck or jubilant; we would not find things enjoyable or exhilarating or stunning or terrific.  But then neither would there be any literalism or literalists, and certainly no complacency.


Without Milton, there would be no attacks, airborne or otherwise; and no exploding artillery.  Our far-sighted (or perhaps irresponsible and unprincipled) leaders would not be led by vested interests to take undesirable actions, for which they – when they mean to argue persuasively – can offer only unconvincing reasons.  They would not be unaccountable.  But after others had done their best to hamstring them, leading to chastening experiences full of unintended consequences, they would not find themselves with the unenviable task of speaking defensively.  There would be no embellishing of the truth; and they would not find themselves beleaguered and then embittered.


For the rest of us, things would never be enlightening, much less civilising.  We would struggle to describe ourselves and our experiences, for we could no more be hot-headed than cherubic, neither loquacious nor impassive, not moonstruck or unadventurous.  There would be no adjustments, no idol-worship, no fragrances or frameworks, no helpfulness or self-delusion, and (mercifully) no pettifoggery.  We could never be full-grown, but neither could we know incompleteness or belatedness.  There would be no circumscribing of expanses.  Zeal would not be reforming or reading matter didactic; rivers (or traffic) would not be slow-moving or ranks serried.  We would not describe the countryside as surrounding or ideas as unoriginal or songs as echoing; things could not be awaited or discontinuous. And, students and teachers note, no great author or difficult topic could ever be thought 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 is mentioned as opulence: wealth; riches; affluence.

“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 lots of 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 the 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. Coleridge called poetry ”best words in their best order”. So to have a better understanding of the English language or any other language, and to learn how to use it properly or to exploit it creatively, there is no alternative to reading at least the major works of the major authors of that language. To be familiar with good English we ought to read English literature extensively along with the ‘traditional’ methods.




  1. Backlinks
    August 13, 2011 at 2:26 am

    I would like to start my own blog one day. This was a really nice blog that you made here.Howd u do it?

  2. Humayun
    September 13, 2011 at 8:22 am

    A beautiful piece of writing!In some early Bengali dictionaries too, we noticed the use of quotations from the noted writers.This, sure, helps learners to learn the best possible usage of words.I do agree with the author that without the study of literature, it’s not possible to master the concerned language.Good piece indeed!

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