Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

Controlling Your Tongue

with 26 comments

Just one of many

If you’ve ever taken college English, you know something about styles of writing. And you know there are different ones with different rules.

MLA, Chicago, AP … and those are just a few established style guides in the US. Then you’ve got spelling differences between American English and British English (color and colour).

But what if there were a central agency to regulate English spelling, usage and grammar? Other languages have them.

You can’t say that here!

Probably the most famous language prescription committee is L’Académie française, which acts as the official authority on French. With a committee of forty members, L’ good old academy publishes an official French dictionary, which means it establishes spelling and what words are included in the vocabulary, as well as grammar and usage.

In an effort to standardize and regulate French, L’Académie takes pains to try to eradicate foreign influences (much from English, I understand) on French by creating new words as needed to supplant the English ones.

Though it has the official final say in linguistic matters French, L’Académie doesn’t have any real regulatory power. As far as I know, no one’s been jailed for saying the colloquial email instead of courrier électronique or the slightly simpler courriel since the government banned the Anglicism from their official documents in 2003.

This all seems a bit daft to me. You see, not only do I bristle at the thought of authority sticking their grubby mitts in natural evolution of language, but it all seems a little bit like linguistic xenophobia to me. Is your language really so wonderful that no other words can express something new?

But to be fair, I can’t pick only on the French – they’re just the easiest. There’s a whole list of language committees at Wikipedia.

Still, there are other organizations I can see a significant use for. Want an example?

Bòrd na Gàidhlig

Pronunciation is not for the faint of heart.

Only about 1% of the population of Scotland speaks their traditional tongue of Gaelic. With this in mind, the Bòrd was formed to help promote and revive the language and culture. This kind of revitalization and education is fairly common among endangered languages, like the Academy of the Mixtec Language.

That makes sense: You’ve got to get people speaking the language before you can worry about whether they’re misspelling it. And I have enough trouble with English to even think about trying to spell in Gaelic.

Don’t forget the made-up and dead languages!

Mia nomo estas Adam.

Sure, reviving dying and minority languages makes sense. Even prescribing use in a widely used dominant language can help avoid confusion. But don’t leave anyone out:

  • The Klingon Language Institute “continues its mission of bringing together individuals interested in the study of Klingon linguistics and culture” … language, yes, but can a fictional race really have a culture?
  • The dead live on with the Opus Fundatum Latinitas. This foundation promotes the study and “increased use of the Latin language by publishing texts in Latin.”
  • The Frankentongue* of Esperanto has its own controlling academy, understandably so for a tongue that no one speaks as their first language. [See edit below.]
  • Notably, Interlingua does not have a regulating body. Why, you ask? Well, apparently Interlingua was created to reflect the most common words and simple grammar based on the Romance languages, and as such, it’s supposed to evolve constantly with society without any central regulator.

English has no king. English needs no king.

The battleground for English is lousy with combatants fighting over the serial comma, or how students should cite their academic papers. (I’m looking at you, Chicago and MLA.) And sure there’s strife over spelling like center and centre, which seems silly to me since we don’t pronounce it sen-truh.

But I, for one, am glad that English has no official regulator. There are enough of us speaking it that it’s not in danger of dying; it’s only somewhat fabricated, so we don’t need someone to tell us how to use it; and I like the foreign words when there’s no English equivalent.

English is dynamic and elastic and constantly changing and reshaping itself to the needs of those who speak it. Putting it in a box would ruin that.

___

*Even though Esperanto was essentially pieced together with body parts from other languages, I guess the appropriate term would be auxiliary language. I apologize if I offended any mad scientists or reanimated corpses.

Paris and Scotland photos courtesy of ljk and colemic2006

___

Edit June 1 2010: Thanks to those who pointed out that there are indeed native speakers of Esperanto. Though there are no specific data on just how many there are, it seems that it’s relatively common for parents who share only Esperanto as a common language to speak it in their home, making it the first (though as far as we know, not only) language of their children.

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Written by Nathanael Green

May 24, 2010 at 8:56 pm

26 Responses

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  1. I’m with you, although I have to admit that I kind of like the idea of one central committee that makes fussy ‘pronouncements’ that no one actually adheres to.

    I think in a way, French is an endangered language, at least compared to English at this moment, and trying to safeguard it from becoming simply Franglish makes a kind of sense. What it really does is make people stop and value the language a bit more, I’d say.

    It would be nice if could be the language czar. the only thing that I’d imprison people for is business cant, probably. ‘Partnered with’ and ‘going forward’ would currently probably receive the stiffest bread and water kinds of sentences. Also, unlike the Supreme Court, I would not be called upon to defend my decisions–at all.

    seana

    May 24, 2010 at 10:18 pm

  2. Uh, I left out a crucial word. The language czar would be moi.

    seana

    May 24, 2010 at 10:20 pm

    • I like that idea, Seana: having a committee simply so we could eschew its authority! Except for the business jargon – I’m on board with that one.

      It’s an interesting idea that French is an endangered language, and one that I think is fair to apply to English as well. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, I don’t think Latin is truly a dead language in the way many American Indian languages are dead, for instance. It didn’t go through a dwindling of speakers until no one spoke it as a first language. Instead, it was spread so far and wide and spoken by so many people that eventually it grew into lots of other languages.

      Think about all the variations on English that we still consider English, even though speakers of two given dialects might be unintelligible to one another. I think it’s very likely that English is on its way to dividing into multiple languages at some point. The real question for that, though, is how much isolation is really needed to form a new language and will modern communications hamper that?

      Nathanael Green

      May 25, 2010 at 5:27 pm

      • In my own admittedly always blinkered state, I think I was under the illusion that Latin died out because it stopped being taught in American high schools! What folly.

        Anyway, although I do know where the romance languages come from, I hadn’t thought about this all in terms of diffusion. Diffusion is a much nicer way to go for a language than extinction, I think.

        Although I don’t think a language czar can actually control speech, there are many instances of the brutal ending of language by the simple expedient of forbidding the use of such language in children. The Indian school system that enforced English is a tragic example. But I’m thinking that prestige is probably the real killer of languages. Upward mobility and all that. People from different backgrounds than the elite ones–and not necessarily poor backgrounds by any means–gradually learn to mimic the sound of the most favored, and I suspect it’s largely unconscious. But I’ve just been doing a lot of research on the writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was a black woman raised in the South, but who went back from a place of prestige to ‘anthropologize’ in the South. She came to understand that it was precisely the language of those who were at the lowest end of the economic ladder that contained the richest treasures of all. The vernacular is important. So I think it really is a deep wound on a living culture when people are made to feel that their own way of speaking is inferior. People second guess themselves then. They don’t speak to each other in the same free way.

        seana

        May 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

        • It’s always a shame when a language dies out. There’s always something unique that dies with any language, and while I’m all in favor of learning new ones, I also think it’s important to not lose hold of your own.

          Here’s an interesting article from the Macmillan Dictionary blog that I think you might enjoy.

          Nathanael Green

          June 1, 2010 at 9:23 pm

  3. Esperanto’s stitches and bolts were absorbed long ago, leaving nothing but the perfectly natural complexion of an evolving, living language. With no legal imprimatur, La Akademio de Esperanto has zero regulatory power; Esperanto owes its stability and uniformity instead to its ease of use and its international community.

    Miĉjo

    May 25, 2010 at 3:09 am

    • Miĉjo,

      Thanks for stopping by. It’s good to hear Esperanto has healed nicely! ;-)

      In practice, I don’t know that any language committee can really have significant regulatory power. But it certainly makes sense for Esperanto to have some sort of governing body to manage the details of the language, keep everything straight and promote its use. To me, this seems more necessary with an auxiliary language that was created intentionally to be accessible than with a natural language.

      Nathanael Green

      May 25, 2010 at 5:39 pm

      • You’re right, of course – La Akademio, even if it has no power, is nevertheless of great value. Notwithstanding Esperanto’s amazing uniformity and and stability during its short history, it’s good to have a reference, even if a descriptive one, something official you can point to and say, without equivocation, “That’s how it’s done”.

        I actually hadn’t considered the promotional function of a language academy, which could be of great benefit to Esperanto. I’m not aware that La Akademio currently fills such a role. Ĉu ekkonsscias pri tiu ĉi ideo legantaj akademianoj? :-)

        Anyway, thanks for a fun and thought-provoking article.

        Miĉjo

        May 25, 2010 at 10:20 pm

  4. Well, if you put as much research into the other parts of this article as you did into the esperanto part, then this essay is essentially worthless.

    Lune

    May 25, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    • Lune,

      Sorry you feel that way. If it’s because I made a bad joke about created languages … well, to each his own. But if you find any factual errors please just let me know so I can address them. Thanks!

      Nathanael Green

      May 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm

      • Nathanael,
        Actually, it was an interesting article, but since most of it is outside my ken, I don’t know if it’s correct or not. But you made two statements about Esperanto. Miĉjo addressed the aspect of the Akadamio. It’s actually a backwards sort of Akadamio, in that “official” words grow out of usage, and then the Akadamio basically codifies it. Like the debate between “Komputilo” and “komputero” and “komputoro.”

        Then you stated that Esperanto has no native speakers. I don’t believe anybody keeps a census on this, but I’ve heard that there are “a couple of hundred” people who have learned the language from childhood. Normally, they learn two or three languages in the process. This happens when Mom and Dad are from different countries and meet at a Junulara Konveno (youth convention), fall in love and get married (because that’s what young people do) and Esperanto is the only language they have in common. This has happened with sufficient frequency that the language is sometimes jokingly referred to as “edz-peranto” (match maker.)

        Lune

        May 26, 2010 at 5:19 pm

        • Lune,

          Thanks for the info! I particularly like the the pun on “edz-peranto.” Plus, it’s good to know that there are some people out there who learned Esperanto as their first language. I’d be interested to find some data on just how many people are native speakers.

          Nathanael Green

          June 1, 2010 at 9:36 pm

  5. Can I also confirm that Esperanto has become a living language :)

    After a short period of 122 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide, according to the CIA World factbook. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, and a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox and Facebook.

    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include financier George Soros, World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to NATO and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet.

    Your readers may be interested in the following video. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

    A glimpse of the language can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

    Brian Barker

    May 27, 2010 at 8:18 am

    • Brian,

      Thanks for the info and the links! It looks like there are some good resources at the lernu site.

      Nathanael Green

      June 1, 2010 at 9:47 pm

  6. Nathanael,

    I’m not sure how one might count the native speakers of ANY language. How many people natively speak English?

    I did find this FAQ page that suggests a thousand native Esperanto speakers.

    http://www.esperanto.net/veb/faq-5.html

    Lune

    June 3, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    • You bring up a good point, Lune. There’s no sure-fire way to get a definitive count on any native speakers.

      Even if there were, there are additional complications like continued births and deaths as well as the always fascinating question of simply defining what the language is, and what constitutes proficiency. If a child’s first words are in German, but by age six he’s barely conversant in that, is that truly his native language?

      Still, there are good surveys that I think give a fair approximation. Censuses and other studies that examine population trends are often good sources for native-speaker information.

      But I think finding stats on Esperanto, though, is additionally complicated by one major factor. Unlike most languages, it’s not really geographically specific (it’s easy to generalize about where most Italian speakers live, for instance). And while its true that speakers of all languages are scattered across the globe, Esperanto has no real home base from which we can begin to work the math.

      That, though, seems to be part of the appeal of the language that I find fascinating.

      Nathanael Green

      June 8, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    • You bring up a good point, Lune. There’s no sure-fire way to get a definitive count on any native speakers.

      Even if there were, there are additional complications like continued births and deaths as well as the always fascinating question of simply defining what the language is, and what constitutes proficiency. If a child’s first words are in German, but by age six he’s barely conversant in that, is that truly his native language?

      Still, there are good surveys that I think give a fair approximation. Censuses and other studies that examine population trends are often good sources for native-speaker information.

      But I think finding stats on Esperanto is additionally complicated by one major factor. Unlike most languages, it’s not really geographically specific (it’s easy to generalize about where most Italian speakers live, for instance). And while its true that speakers of all languages are scattered across the globe, Esperanto has no real home base from which we can begin to work the math.

      That, though, seems to be part of the appeal of the language that I find fascinating.

      Nathanael Green

      June 8, 2010 at 11:29 pm

  7. The next time English branches off/becomes another language is when we colonize some distant moon/planet, and the colonizers are sufficiently cut off from the rest of us for periods of time.

    That’s just my uneducated guess.

    Nice work on this post, pal. Lots of good stuff in here.

    Brian O'Rourke

    June 7, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    • One of the things I wonder about, especially with English currently, is whether the isolation needs to be literal and physical, or if a psychological isolation is enough.

      From what I understand, there seem to be real pushes to legitimize many of the dialects of English, especially in post-colonial areas. Instead of creating a “real” English to which everyone must subscribe, I can foresee people who speak heavy dialects taking pride in their differences from “proper” English and purposefully maintaining them to the point where the dialects are mutually unintelligible, and then different languages.

      If people want to speak proper English, then isolation is necessary for the language to diverge. But what happens when people want to speak their own variant on the language, and not that of someone else? I think dialect is a mark of pride for a lot of people, and that might lead us towards new languages.

      Still, though, it’d be a long slog to get there. Maybe the better money’s on the moon pioneers.

      Nathanael Green

      June 8, 2010 at 11:45 pm

      • Nathanael, sounds like you are alluding to Ebonics.

        Lune

        June 10, 2010 at 10:22 am

        • I think Ebonics (or African-American Vernacular English, AAVE) is one of many examples. There are some serious debates going on currently among linguists and language teachers about what exactly constitutes English, and what version we should teach. For instance, the English-speaking population in India approaches nearly that of the United States, though with a dialect obvious to most American English speakers. So then the question becomes, whose English is right?

          And beyond the question of post-colonial lands adopting their own creoles and dialects, there’s an issue of the various dialects within the long-established English-speaking countries. I’ve had trouble understanding people who grew up two states away from me.

          Nathanael Green

          June 14, 2010 at 10:23 pm

  8. Seems as good a place to mention as any that I think I finally narrowed down what endangered language to study. I was doing some research on a project related to my Dad’s family in northern Illinois and learned that the Indian people who had been there were the Potawatomi. Turns out they have a language learning class on line, complete with video of the native speakers speaking it. It seems appropriate that I give some time to that language, doesn’t it, seeing as my ancestors probably benefited from their removal ?

    seana

    June 10, 2010 at 10:51 am

    • Seana,

      I’m excited you seemed to have chosen a new language to study! I’ll certainly have to look into the sounds of Potawatomi – I’m always fascinated just to hear what types of sounds and rhythms each language produces.

      You’ll have to let us know how the study progresses.

      By the way – do you have any good links for that you’d like to share?

      Nathanael Green

      June 14, 2010 at 10:25 pm

    • Potawatomilanguage–check it out!

      I haven’t actually even gotten started yet, but I thought if I mentioned it here, I might at least feel compelled to follow through…

      seana

      June 14, 2010 at 10:51 pm

  9. […] Contact Me Controlling Your Tongue […]


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