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. 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 & 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 - was his 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.