Saturday, 4 October 2014

Can we influence the future?

This week I attended a conference on low carbon energy in the cities of the future. English was the common tongue among Greeks, Germans, French, Hungarians, Italians. It still amazes me how everyone speaks English today, communicating with ease with any nationality in this ‘lingua franca’.

How did this come to pass? Why is English so international?

Today, I came across a poem which partly answers this question, written by visionary Elizabethan poet, Samuel Daniel, in 1597. It foretells an age such as ours when English would be the common tongue across the world. An expanded English speaking world was the hope of a small group living at that time, “The Areopagus”.

Samuel Daniel was one of this highly Protestant group of artists and patrons, including Philip Sidney, who sought to turn English into a highly refined language (like Renaissance Italian) and spread it as a useful, global ‘bond’, to out-perform Spanish.

Daniel's poem is a ‘futuristic’ vision of how English would succeed Latin, the elite language of the medieval church and Europe’s educated classes. English would be like ancient Greek, which had been the common tongue of the Roman Empire. It had been recognised that an easier language than Latin was needed by a wider number of people (though I would be first to admit that the spelling of English is off-putting and difficult).

How undaunted the Elizabethans were by time, obstacles, dangers and distance. They are an inspiring example of how a tiny, far seeing, committed Christian group of people with a clear idea, can influence future centuries. Their motto might as well as have been: "Yes, we can!". We should take note of how, and why, they did it. In this poem, “ordained” in the last line indicates that their work of refining the English tongue, in which William Shakespeare was also engaged, was for the prime purpose of spreading the gospel, guided by God to His time scales. So what is the answer to this question of Daniel here?

“And who, in time, knows whither we may vent
The treasure of our tongue, to what strange shores
This gain of our best glory shall be sent
T’inrich unknowing nations with our stores?
What worlds in th’yet unformed Occident,
May come refin’d with th’accents that are ours?
Or who can tell for what great work in hand
The greatness of our style is now ordain’d?”
Samuel Daniel (1597) (Musophilus 957-64)

It is we, in time, who now know the answer: North America, the Commonwealth, their rhetoric, media, churches, writers, films; most international gatherings in the world, in 2014.

Background note: Samuel Daniel was regarded by Oxford Professor of English, C S Lewis as the greatest poet of the Elizabethan age (though I do not agree as clearly Shakespeare was the greatest poet of that age, and all successive ages). Daniel wrote plays, as well as poems. He was the brother-in-law of Anglo-Italian John Florio, who was the first leading refiner of the English tongue, a strong supporter of the colonisation of North America and global promulgation of English and the Gospel via this route.


  1. Kipling also warned in 'Recessional' that it was possible to forfeit the privileges of empire through pride. 'Lest all our pomp, is one with Nineveh and Tyre'. A sad reflection.

  2. I don't know if my comment was lost when I published it, anyway I write it again... I wouldn't agree with the sentence: "It had been recognised that an easier language than Latin". Medieval Latin wasn't difficult (almost no declension), it was like Ancient French or Ancient Italian"