Below is a round-up of some of the best quotes about language that I could find. Among the people responsible for these quotes are writers, humorists, and politicians. If you like these language quotes, then share this post!
A Round-Up of Great Quotes About Language
George Bernard Shaw
There are times when great people—authors, thinkers, politicians—come out with lines that will repeated and repeated decades and centuries later. (Okay, maybe the politicians’ speechwriters deserve the credit.)
The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.
—George Bernard Shaw
This quote by famed Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw is one such line. Pithy language quotes don’t get any better than this.
Beverly Cleary, the children’s book author known best for her Ramona series, turned 100 in the spring of 2016. And it should come as no surprise that the woman behind Beezus and Ramona, Henry Huggins, and Ralph S. Mouse believes in having kids read for fun.
Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.
When I was in grade school, Beverly Cleary probably had the best name recognition among the kids in my class.
How popular is Cleary? She has sold 85 million copies of her books.
Choosing the right words is hard. But it’s probably easier for really talented authors than it is for most people. Below is one of my favorite quotes about language (about word choice, specifically).
I work hard at the words, rewriting, finding the right words, the ones where no other word would suit, only those words.
There’s a great profile of author Edna O’Brien in the July/August issue of Smithsonian magazine. None other than Portnoy’s Complaint author Philip Roth has called her “the most gifted woman now writing in English.”
Clearly, this is a woman who knows her craft. Read the full Smithsonian article here.
Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language” is, in a word, brilliant. He wrote, “A person who has not studied German can form no idea of what a perplexing language it is.”
Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out.
—Mark Twain, writing about the German language
Samuel Clemens, known better by his pen name Mark Twain, is a giant in American literature. His piece about German is a must-read for any English speaker who has ever studied the language.
My favorite quote from the essay is his riff on the German pronoun sie:
Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six—and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.
Some quotes about language are funny. Take, for example, the Gipper’s claim that Russian doesn’t have a word for freedom.
I’m no linguist, but I have been told that in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.
In October 1985, a BBC interviewer asked President Reagan to expand upon his claim that the U.S. and Soviet systems were at complete odds with each other.
He then replied with a memorable line that was, well, untrue.
Russian does have a word for freedom, in fact. It’s svoboda.
Alma Guillermoprieto is a Mexican journalist who has written for The Guardian, The New Yorker, the Washington Post, and Newsweek. She has lived in New York City and speaks English fluently.
The best translators slip into the glove of a text and then turn it inside out into another language, and the whole thing comes out looking like a brand-new glove again. I’m completely in awe of this skill, since I happen to be both bilingual and a writer, but nevertheless a lousy translator.
Leave it to Jane Austen to come up with an elegantly worded insult.
The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.
—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
Best known for her novels such as Sense and Sensibility and Emma, Austen is one of the most widely read authors in the world.
In fact, since their first publication in the early 1800s, her novels have not been out of print. How many authors can claim similar success?
Austen was an incredibly witty and eloquent writer. For example, take an excerpt from Pride and Prejudice, perhaps her most famous work.
A lesser author might have described the character Mr. Bennett as simply “complicated” and his wife as “a meddling cow.” Instead, Austen gives us this rich and humorous description of the couple:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
Austen wrote only six complete novels and an assortment of shorter pieces, but her work has resulted in adaptations of almost every kind. Novels, TV shows, movies, and plays dot today’s cultural landscape.
Robert Benchley (1889–1945) was an American humorist who wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, Vanity Fair, and The New Yorker. He also appeared in many short films.
This quote from Benchley appears on the back of my business cards. (Business doesn’t have to be stuffy, does it?)
Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.
Mandela was the first black president of South Africa, fighting to repair the post-apartheid nation. He spoke Xhosa and English, and he learned Afrikaans while he was in prison.
The sentiment below isn’t just one of my favorite quotes about language. It’s also true.
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Looking for more great quotes about language? Then see what Virginia Woolf has to say about it or find out how to say “I think, therefore I am” in 10 different languages.