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October 28, 2013


I suspect that for Vietnamese it is (or was, until recently) Kim Van Kieu, aka "The Tale of Kieu."

Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere is central to Philippine culture in terms of characters and situations described, but since it is written in Spanish, and hardly any Filipinos speak Spanish, its cultural-linguistic affect is more indirect. There are translations into English and Tagalog (and other Philippine languages, I believe), but that's not quite the same thing.

Thanks, dr! I hoped you would weigh in.

Is Kim Van Kieu the kind of thing that everybody (who goes) reads in secondary school?

It's fascinating to read the wikipedia entry and realize that this is a "national epic" that's about a woman. And not just about her, the entry makes it sound like a (complex and sophisticated) romance novel, because so much of it seems to revolve around sex and/or love.

No wonder a lot of male critics thought it had to be a political allegory.

"I realized, of course, that this was backwards: Hamlet isn't full of clichés, the English language is full of Hamlet."

This is exactly right.

I'm sorry (to dr ngo, for having fewer bathrooms than he, but more books in them, of which names I drop, salamat po 8)) but I just happen to be reading W.H. Auden's "The Dyer's Hand", which includes the set of essays entitled "The Shakespearean City", "The Globe" and he writes that the language that Shakespeare and Racine have given their characters is not "an outward expression of their noble natures, but a gorgeous robe which hides their nakedness."

He then quotes D.H. Lawrence:

"When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder
that such trivial people should muse and thunder
in such lovely language

Lear, the old buffer, you wonder his daughters didn't treat him rougher
the old chough, the old chuffer

And Hamlet, how boring, how boring to live with,
so mean and self-conscious, blowing and snoring
his wonderful speeches, full of other folk's whoring!

And Macbeth and his Lady, who should have been choring
such suburban ambition, so messily goring
old Duncan with daggers

How boring, how small Shakespeare's people are!
Yet the language so lovely! like the dyes from gas-tar."

Shakespeare had the human nailed, except his humans talk better, despite what Gary Farber thinks of Harold Bloom.

That's a tease for Gary.

I haven't the first-hand knowledge to say, but I've always heard that Pushkin was fairly transformative for the Russian language. I don't know if any particular work stands out as "full of clichés", but the novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin is generally considered to be his masterpiece, so it's probably the closest Russian equivalent for Hamlet.

I don't know when Vietnamese learned/studied Kieu, but I remember hearing that some taxi-drivers could quote chunks of it.

As for it being a romance novel that male critics turned into a political allegory, my sense is that it was always in a sense a political allegory (with traditional Vietnam as the beleaguered "Kieu"), but that the (male) author, Nguyen Du, was skilled and sensitive enough that the characters come alive. One can read it with pleasure without being aware of the politics: which is high art, indeed.

(And in terms of romance, Kieu survives all manner of ups & downs, but does not wind up in a "happy ending" with a man, which I think of as quintessential to most "romantic" fiction. [Or else a beautiful death?] Sometimes survival, and being at peace with yourself, is enough.)

Writing all this reminds me how long it's been since I read Kieu, so I may well have things wrong. Therefore I encourage everyone to read it him/herself; it's not long, and is available in good English translation (by Huynh Sanh Thong).

Luther's Bible translation became formative for what is now considered High German standard language. He chose one dialect that had a range beyond the regional because it was also used as a lingua Franca in the princely courts (Kursächsische Kanzleisprache) thus guaranteeing a quicker and farther spread.
In literature I do not think there is a single work that can be compared to Hamlet or a single author. The Weimar classics as a whole may have such an influence but I do not think their reach is as strong as Shakespeare's. Simple reason: Willy wrote for both the elites and the masses, German classics primarily for the educated bourgeois class. As for concrete influence I would rank Schiller a good deal higher than Goethe for the same reason. Schiller at least tried to be 'popular', which drew criticism of vulgarity. Goethe was a bit ashamed of his own 'youthful indiscretions' like Götz von Berlichingen. Ironically, that tends to be the first Goethe drama kids get confronted with at school (5th grade) and the least boring. Faust (part one only) is close to the last thing on the curriculum (12th grade).
For Schiller the poems have imo a far stronger influence than the dramas.

Schiller was and is also among the most popular targets for parodies. It started while he was still alive and some of those parodies rival the original in popularity. I think he is apart from the Bible also the one most quoted unknowingly.

What Hartmut said...
But I would like to add that German classes in school have a tendency to divide literature into "art" (usually boring, including the classics) and "not-really-worth-of-discussion" (everything else, often interesting things, genre fiction and so on), which tends to discourage kids a lot. This, I think, will lead to an outphasing of those remaining classical metaphors in everyday speech in the future.

Following up on Hartmut, I'd say that the King James Bible* has probably had an effect on English at least as big as Shakespeare's. It has been much more widely and thoroughly read than Shakespeare, and it's full of both great language and instructive stories, so language from the KJV litters our language. I don't know if it counts in quite the same way that Shakespeare does, if only because it's the work of a committee rather than a single person, but it's enormously important.

For Japan, everyone gets a small portion of Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji, which would probably be like every English student getting some Beowulf before college. However, the standard book that everyone reads is Botchan by Natsume Soseki. Probably a comment on my understanding of Japanese, but I have never picked up the moral battle and it seemed a lot more like the guy from Tokyo goes to the country and is disgusted by life there. I'm not at all sure that they teach it in such a didactic fashion, and it may be more because Soseki is the first one to put the Japanese language into a style of literature which is basically foreign (the novel) and so was able to reshape Japanese, much like one could say that Chaucer did. My daughter knows the plot, but the moral play described in Wikipedia was never explained.

On the other hand, it may be like Billy Budd, that paean to following the commands of higher-ups to the point of cheering for them just before the rope snaps your neck.

No question the KJV has had as much of an influence as Shakespeare, or more. But I don't recall having that "it's full of clichés!" feeling reading it -- probably because so much of the Bible had been presented to me as the Bible, from earliest youth. I never got the "so *that's* where that comes from!" feeling, because people quoting the Bible almost always signal that they're doing so and that it's important.

For Shakespeare in general and "Hamlet" in particular, what was startling was reading something for the first time that felt already familiar.

We're currently doing a family read-aloud of The Lord of the Rings, the first one since Sprog the Younger was 6 or so. She says she keeps being startled by how many phrases or sayings the rest of us repeat all the time turn out to come from LOTR. "Hamlet" for me was the same thing, only an order of magnitude more so.

Hartmut, etc.:

Did you Germans find that when you first read Schiller it seemed "full of cliches", full of phrases you knew but hadn't realized where they came from?

A reader has just informed me that they've heard French speakers say it happens for them with Molière. If it doesn't happen with German (except for the Bible), I wonder if it's because none of the iconic literature is *old* enough, it hasn't had as many centuries as Molière or Shakespeare to seep all the way into the language.

seems like there should be something American... but i can't think of it.

actually, the American equivalent is probably a movie. Star Wars maybe.

Jaws, Animal House, Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Caddy Shack?

DrSci, something else you said (Homer for the Greeks) made me wonder, with the influence Greek mythology and literature had throughout Europe...are idioms such as "Trojan Horse", "Achilles heel" and "flew to close to the sun" common? Did other European cultures pick up different phrases from ancient Greece? Or is this another example of the packrat nature of the english language?

My brief internet searches have turned up little, although I did learn that achilles' heel was first used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "Ireland, that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles!" in 1810, which points to a predominantly English derivation of that particular turn of phrase.

I'm pretty sure Dante's "The Divine Comedy/La Divina Commedia" is that for Italian. In high school, we spent an entire year EACH on Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. And it is considered to be when the "Italian" language was born (as opposed to a bunch of local dialects).

In high school, we spent an entire year EACH on Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.


For Finns, the standard works that seep through our language are:
* the Bible (primarily the 1701 and 1938 translations)
* Johan Ludvig Runeberg's Fänrik Ståhls sägner, which is actually Swedish, but is usually quoted according to Paavo Cajander's translation from the early 20th century
* Aleksis Kivi's Seitsemän veljestä
* Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas

Of the four books, Runeberg's and Kivi's works were written during the Finnish national awakening in the 19th century. Kivi's novel was the first Finnish-language novel, while Runeberg's epic poems of the war of 1808-09 between Sweden and Russia were written in the culturally dominant Swedish, and only later translated into Finnish language.

Bible, naturally, has the same role as in the German language. Being the only literary work available to the common people for centuries, its phrases and proverbs became staples of the language.

The oddest of these is Väinö Linna's novel, which was published only in 1954. An immediate bestseller, it largely formed the national self-understanding of our role in the Second World War. Phrases and lines from it are clichés very prevalent in everyday speech.

Yeah, well just wait a couple of centuries and you'll find "English" has been fully infiltrated by "Jersey Shore".

That should be about a week before the giant meteor destroys humanity once and for all. And about time, too.

I think we shouldn't underestimate the impact of "Faust". Goethe also - to his own surprise - wrote an international bestseller: The Sorrows of Young Werther (check it out if you're in a romantic mood). And Schiller and him were, despite many differences very good friends.

Lurker, from what I know Lönnrot's Kalevala had a huge influence on the use of Finnish as a language. He added extensive footnotes, so people could understand all those (then) uncommon words but today people use the text to understand those footnotes because now the language as used is as in Kalevala not as people spoke Finnish at Lönnrot's time (at least that's what my German edition says).
novakant, Goethe's success with Faust and Werther is undoubted but at least the latter had no influence on the use of the German language to my knowledge.
is(de), so true
Doc Science, even I am surprised how many phrases can be traced back to Schiller even some that sound like at least a centry after his time.
There is a difference between conscious quoting from the Bible and use of a verbal image that stems from there. Who would e.g. normally suspect that a phrase like 'up to the neck in it' is from the Psalms?

and, speaking of common phrases and their origins...



I neglected mentioning Kalevala consciously. That is our national epic, and it did have impact on Finnish language, but the impact it had is often exaggerated. Most people have not read Kalevala apart from small excerpts, and only a couple of idioms in widespread use originate from it.

The Finnish language was modernised a lot in mid-19th century. This meant that a very large number of words and even some grammatical forms from Eastern Finnish dialects were incorporated into the standard language. However, this was not only because of Kalevala, but a conscious politico-linguistic choice by the small educated Finnish-speaking literary and journalistic elite. A positive result, indeed. After the changes, Finnish standard language became much more understandable also for the part of population who lives in Eastern Finland.

Lönnrot's personal achievements as a developer of the Finnish language are greater than those of Kalevala's. He invented a few hundred neologisms that are still in everyday use (e.g. words for "state" valtio and "science" tiede). As a Finnish linguist, he is surpassed only by Michael Agricola, the Bishop of Turku who wrote the first Finnish printed books and developed a similar number of neologisms.

Doc Science - I do not think I had the feeling of recognition at this intense level you described when reading either Schiller or Goethe in school. I skipped Faust, but got to read two plays, and a few poems, respectively, and one novel by Goethe, as well as far too much Berthold Brecht, some Lessing, Theodor Fontane, Kafka, Heinrich Heine, Böll, and more modern stuff. Sure, the storyline of Wilhelm Tell is known far and wide, as well as the money quote from Goetz von Berlichingen ("...er aber, sag's ihm, er kann mich im Arsche lecken" - rough translation: tell him to kiss my a**) though that was blanked out in my Reclam text book, to my deep regret at that time, but I never got the feeling that I was close to some common German-language cultural core or something.

You don't read Homer as a beginner in Greek- it's in obscure archaic language that requires some familiarity with Greek to make sense. You start with Xenophon or Herodotus, who write simple straightforward prose, or the verse plays of Sophocles leaving out the difficult choral odes, to gain that familiarity.

I would have supposed the same applied to Shakespeare and people learning English as a second or subsequent language.

I wonder if anyone feels competent to essay a guess as to the impact of "Don Quixote" on Spain, or on Spanish-speaking countries elsewhere. Certainly they (and we) got "tilting at windmills" and other images and idioms, but is there more?

For Finns, the standard works that seep through our language are:

You've overlooked Huckleberry Finn.

"You don't read Homer as a beginner in Greek- it's in obscure archaic language that requires some familiarity with Greek to make sense. You start with Xenophon or Herodotus, who write simple straightforward prose, or the verse plays of Sophocles leaving out the difficult choral odes, to gain that familiarity."

Depends what you mean by 'beginner', but my second semester Greek class focused on Homer.

They say there were two books that any literate farmer in Norway would have since independence in 1814 if not before: The Bible, and Snorri Sturluson's "Heimskringla". As influential as Hamlet I don't know, but at least if you say

"Well the king has fed us, I am still fat about my heart's roots"

... then I suppose most Norwegians know where it's from.

"Music has charms to soothe a savage breast"

William Congreve

Always misquoted as "the savage beast" and nearly always attributed, if an attribution guess is requested, to Shakespeare.

One wonder if the "Breastie Boys" would have gone over.

One wonder if the "Breastie Boys" would have gone over.

They already have, on certain websites, if you get my drift.

Goethe's success with Faust and Werther is undoubted but at least the latter had no influence on the use of the German language to my knowledge.

Re Werther: Maybe not in the narrow sense of quotable passages seeping into ordinary language - but then how many Shakespeare quotes can the 'man on the street' recite, my guess is one - but it had a massive influence both as a key work of the "Sturm und Drang" as well as changing the reading habits of large parts of the population.

how many Shakespeare quotes can the 'man on the street' recite, my guess is one...

Unless you mean knowingly, your guess would be wrong...

Even Chaucer is still regularly quoted: "clear as a bell" etc..

Not sure about that list Nigel.

Firstly, I'd say only maybe 20% are actually used in ordinary language and half of those by the educated (upper) middle class, where the boundary between knowingly and unknowingly is blurred because they were brought up with that type of literate language.

Secondly, I find it hard to believe that Shakespeare sat down and invented the majority of these phrases out of thin air - it is much more plausible that many of them were grabbed from other sources or just the plain language of the time and then poetically tweaked - Shakespeare was great at appropriating everything he could his hands on - and, postmodernist that I am, I mean that in a good way and admire this ability of his greatly.

There are quite a number of words we have no other source for than Stratford Willy. Since he very probably did not invent them, we have to thank him for preserving them. English is not the only example. The following quote uses the first and last word entry of each volume of the Grimmsches Wörterbuch (the attempt to put all known German words together with sources for each. It took more than a century and got started by the fairy-tale guys.). So, it's fully correct German but sounds like Monty Python* and could as well be total gibberish, i.e. fully incomprehensible.

Wenn Biermolke dwatsche Biermörder bei der Forsche im Förschelverfahren dazu treibt, Gefopptegetreibs gewöhniglich mit der Gleve gegen Glibbergräzisten abzuschließen, vermag nur Greander aus Juzen Quurren werden zu lassen. Sonst könnten schiefelnde Seelen nach wackerer Stehung maßvoller, auf Szische angesetzter Stoben bei treftigem Strollen stitzig werden. Hingegen mag beim stobigen Treib ein Uzvogel in Umzwingung verzwunzen haben, wie ihm die Vesche auf vulkanischem Wegzwiesel wenig Wendunmut bereitete, was einem wilben Wiking im Ysop auf dem Zmaschenlager unterm Zypressenzweig viel eher widerfahret.

*Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!

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