We all know that languages evolve and often dramatic change can even come about in merely a generation or two. We only have to look at how abbreviations have become popular in text as well as internet hip hop cyber-jargon. Sometimes quite daunting, even to a professional decipher expert in an Intelligence Agency.
Nevertheless, whether the language is English, French, German or even Urdu there remains the purists who pride themselves on using their criteria at a point where they feel their own particular language has reached its peak in terms of perfection.
Shakespearian English, although not in its lyrical form, is a yardstick that is often referred to when we speak of the purity of the language I am using here. In fact, in most parts of the Euro-zone areas where English is taught as a second language, it is somewhat more precise than taught in the home counties of England – as it also is in many parts of the north-west areas of the USA. Many might say, Bostonian English can often be easier to follow – in its written and spoken form – than the English taught at Wallow-on-the-Marsh in rural England.
So why do I make this initial point?
People who had the great pleasure of reading Helen Hanff’s modern classic, 84 Charing Cross Road where a Philadelphia born New York based writer – first published in 1970 – where it shows her 20 years of correspondence with Frank Doel, a buyer for Marks & Co, a London bookshop, on which she depended on obscure classics and British literature titles, which her passion for self-education revolved (The book was made into a film with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, and a must for all lovers of fine literature) they will appreciate why, when George Whitman, the Owner of Paris’ famous English language bookshop, Shakespeare and Company died last week aged 98 and that he was mourned around the world by great writers, would-be writers and millions of readers alike.
The remarkable longevity of this eccentric, but much loved man – and the fact that through books – fantasy and fiction – his life probably took on wonderful disguises, brilliant adventures, time travelled and had altogether unremitting romances – that always ended well – and endured battles and mayhem, yet came out of it all totally unscathed. His entire life was books – books that could quite literally take your breath away. And, wonder of all wonders, they were all in English – IN PARIS!
When I first visited this amazing shop I was into my second year at Oxford and enamoured by a language that was not my original mother tongue, but having already absorbed the great writings of Madame de Lafayette, Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Théophile and Jean-Paul Sartre my mind was drawn to the great English writers.
George Whitman had by then, expanded his small shop to house 13 extra people if required to do so. Either the accomplished high and mighties, or aspiring would-bees if they could-bees and even just the lowly book lovers could stay when in town – free of charge. Oh, yes, George had strong socialistic leanings and he had kept acquiring more portions of the building he was in to house his great loves. Books and the people who also loved his books.
In those days – myself, the usual struggling student of the times – spent a night talking to George surrounded by his books, plays and anything that he thought was a great work of art in the written English word.
These works swallowed up George’s life and if you couldn’t afford to buy something that was required reading, George would lend it, again free of charge.
George saw himself as patron of a literary haven, and in the lean years after World War II, and the heir to Sylvia Beach, the founder of the original Shakespeare & Company, the original shop became a haunt of Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce in its early days.
Overlooking the Seine and facing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, the store appears, now, like the old shops of the famous Charing Cross Road in London, a somewhat character filled, colourful store with a Dickensian flavour and over three floors is a mixture of open house and writers commune.
For countless years George Whitman provided food and makeshift beds to aspiring novelists letting them spend a night, a week, or even months living among the crowded shelves and alcoves.
Even more remarkable is, this great man was an American – born in 1913 in East Jersey. His early life saw him moving around the globe quite dramatically something that he continued to do into adulthood until he arrived in Paris and although without much money but with a great love and desire to open a book shop. He did just that in 1951.
When you look at another incredible thing is that the original owner of that first Shakespeare & Company was also an American – Sylvia Beach who was born in 1887 in Baltimore USA and in moving to Paris also dreamt of opening her own book store which she did in 1919 calling it Shakespeare & Company. (George inherited this title upon her death in 1962 and again applied this name to the current book shop as a homage to her.)
Sylvia Beach, sadly had to close her doors to S&C during the German occupation in 1941. Rumor had it the Gestapo thought it was being used as a meeting place for Secret Agents for the allies.
That aside, here we have two Americans bringing the English language together – and not an English man or woman in sight.
When you see the English Prime Minister, Cameron, French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor, Merkel all speaking together they use, what in France and Germany is known as ‘Shakespearean English.’ That is not to say, that Sarkozy cries, ‘Ah, where art thou with thee economy, thou roguish Cameron?’ Nor does Merkel disappointingly says to Sarkozy ‘What hast thee hidden up thou vast proboscis?’ No. Of course not! The term is merely applied to a preciseness of ‘Business English,’ and given the term ‘Shakespearian.’ Perhaps because it is more colourful and visual. An articulated sense of the word. Maybe it is the English that many of us would prefer to see at times, even though preciseness can often deprive us of one of the idioms of indigenized English, for without that idiomatic colour and flavour, TV drama and film would be dreary and very mundane. So we compromise. A bit of this and a bit of that!
George saw himself as patron of a literary haven in the lean years after World War II, and being the heir to a small inheritance of his Aunts, as well as the heir to a lot of Sylvia Beach’s fine books, plus the name of her store Shakespeare & Company. And, as a gracious nod to her, when George’s daughter was born, she was given the classical name of Sylvia Beach Whitman.
So, let us just say, that while the great and wonderful man, George Whitman helped keep English intact, while he may not have been part of the evolution of English as a language, he kept its purity enshrined for those who like it that way!