Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

The St. Louis Mercantile Library
Celebrates English Language Day
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1477. This piece was printed by
William Caxton, whose printing press was the first of the English Language.
From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
On April 23rd, coinciding William Shakespeare’s birth and death dates, English Language Day celebrates the rich history of the English language. By commemorating language, we can reflect on the impact of books in our lifetime, and the literary path paved by talented writers. Influential figures like William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Samuel Johnson demonstrate the significance of a written language, and in this specific case, the English language, in forging the way we understand literature and vocabulary.
The written word has the power to change minds and generate fierce emotion within a reader. Readers from the past are comparable to readers today because we tend to feel connected to the writings of our favorite authors, writers that transcend time. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) comes to mind when referring to a writer’s ability to go beyond time with stories of passion, romance, deceit, and tragedy.
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, 1623. Romeo and Juliet continues to captivate audiences world-wide with Shakespeare’s unique wordplay and use of language to convey emotion. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
The works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400), a 14th century English poet, also reflects the significance of the printed word. Words methodically pieced together can capture the minds of audiences, just like Chaucer’s publication The Canterbury Tales has managed to do throughout the centuries. Chaucer recognized the complexity of the English language and his works indicate a familiarity with the power of language, while conveying timelessly captivating stories with memorable and interesting characters.
The Workes of our Ancient, Learned, & Excellent English Poet Jeffrey Chaucer by Geoffrey Chaucer, 1687. From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Though writing has the ability to convey emotion and stories to the reader, it can also spark controversy. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), a French Protestant, published Dictionnarie historique et critique, one of the most controversial pieces of the eighteenth century. Through his writings, Bayle relayed his personal experiences of religious persecution into his writings. Bayle questioned the status quo and reconsidered the roles religion, philosophy, and history play in society. Although Dictionnarie historique et critique was not what we would today consider a dictionary, it became a referenced source for future Enlightenment thinkers. The significance of his published works contributed to a movement, and readers found meaning behind his words and ideas.
The Dictionary Historical and Critical of Mr. Peter Bayle by Pierre Desmaizaux, 1734.
From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Bayle are considered to be some of the greatest authors and scholars of their time. Their mastery of the English language flourished alongside their careers. Their rise in popularity also slowly started to match the rise in literacy rates and printed books. But as members of the general public increasingly received access to literature, booksellers and authors alike required a standard book outlining the rules of grammar, official spellings, and definitions. As a result, widespread frustration grew, and booksellers felt compelled to hire an individual to create a dictionary. Though language is incredibly difficult to record because of its evolving nature, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) agreed to the challenge of crafting a standard English dictionary. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, one of the first English dictionaries used by the public, emphasized the changing nature of language and set the tone for future dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary 173 years later.
A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson, 1755.
From the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library.
The history of the English language and its diffusion through the printed word is filled with a rich past. Preserving this past is imperative to the St. Louis Mercantile Library, and these preservation efforts span from early Chaucer and Shakespeare to one of the earliest English dictionaries and beyond. Without literature and art, the world would be a very lonely place. But the diffusion of the English language, as well as many other languages across the globe, enables a reader to step into a new world, learn a new phrase, or expand one’s vocabulary. On English Language Day, we celebrate the English language and all it has provided to us, as well as the tales that have stayed alongside us throughout the years.

Author’s note: As I wrap up my two-year graduate assistantship with the Mercantile Library, I have spent the last two years delving into the unique items in our collection. While working on this piece, I continued to rediscover my passion for preserving and interpreting the stories from our past. The Mercantile houses items that continue to shape our society and bring meaning to life, and it was a pleasure to write about the significance of a story, while considering how our memories connect to history.
Katie Lade  
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