Controlling Your Tongue
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
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!
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.
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.