On the Permeability of Borders

Although scholars differ in their estimation of the number of words and phrases that Shakespeare introduced into English, they all agree that he transformed the language tremendously. He referred to himself as “a man on fire for new words.” As Melvyn Bragg wrote in The Adventure of English,

“Comparisons are entertaining: the King James Bible of 1611 used about ten thousand different words. The average educated man today, more than four hundred years on from Shakespeare with the advantage of the hundreds of thousands of new words that have come in since his time, has working vocabulary of less than half that of Shakespeare.”

In the world in which the tendency is to close borders and build walls, languages know no barriers; quite the contrary, they are in flux and rather permeable, no matter the efforts of regulatory bodies. Shakespeare’s language borrowed heavily from French, Spanish and Latin, at the same time travelling freely across the social strata, using the language of the court, street slang as well as his own dialect. He would bend and break rules and, as the linguist David Crystal put it, dared to do things with language.

Naturally, there were those who opposed the influx of alien elements into the English language, but history has taught us that they lost. A beautiful poem by Wislawa Szymborska called “Psalm” comes to mind:

“How leaky are the borders of man-made states!

How many clouds float over them scot-free,

how much desert sand sifts from  country to country,

how many mountain pebbles roll onto foreign turf

in provocative leaps!


Need I cite each and every bird as it flies,

or alights, as now, on the lowered gate?

Even if it be a sparrow—its tail is abroad,

thought its beak is still home. As if that weren’t enough—it keeps fidgeting!


Out of countless insects I will single out the ant,

who, between the guard’s left and right boots,

feels unobliged to answer questions of origin and destination.


If only this whole mess could be seen at once in detail

on every continent!

Isn’t that a privet on the opposite bank

smuggling its hundred-thousandth leaf across the river?


Who else but the squid, brazenly long-armed,

would violate the sacred territorial waters?


How can we speak of any semblance of order

when we can’t rearrange the stars

to know which one  shines for whom?


Not to mention the reprehensible spreading of fog!

Or the dusting of the steppe over its entire range

as though it weren’t split in two! Or voices carried over accommodating air waves:

summoning squeals and suggestive gurgles!


Only what’s human can be truly alien.

The rest is mixed forest, undermining moles and wind.”

Translated by Joanna Trzeciak, via https://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/2013/09/28/lifesaving-poems-wislawa-szymborskas-psalm/


Georgia O’Keeffe, “Starlight Night, Lake Georgia”


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9 Responses to On the Permeability of Borders

  1. Amy Campion says:

    Thank you. I have shared this poem on my personal facebook page – it’s wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In any language, number of new words are used by persons. If the person who has used different word than then normal one is influential – by way of spreading it – like a writer, politician, media person, person from entertainment industry etc. will be used by common person too and after 400-500 years next generation will discuss on the words or language or way of presentation.

    Liked by 1 person

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