Language changes — and you can’t stop it!

English has never had its own Académie Française or Real Academia Española. Here’s why it shouldn’t.

Authorities in many countries have had a misguided belief that the best way to protect their language was to place it in the care of an academy. Italy’s Accademia della Crusca was founded as early as 1582, Richelieu established the Académie Française in 1635, and, closer to home, the Real Academia Española was founded in 1713.

The idea of these organizations, and of many more which were to spring up over the years has been to “protect” the language and its grammar. Grammar, in the words of Cardinal Richelieu, is “the art of speaking and writing correctly […] it describes good usage and defends this from all causes of corruption“. (My bold letters, and I shall return to the theme in a moment).

Now this never happened in England or the United States. But proposals for an English Academy were made in the 17th Century, supported by such literary stalwarts as Daniel Defoe and John Dryden, and again by Jonathan Swift in 1712 in his Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue

In that proposal, Swift complained that “our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruptions; that the pretenders to polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied abuses and absurdities; and that in many instances it offends against every part of grammar.”

But one of the earliest recorded writers in English to complain about language change was William Caxton. He was born in approximately 1422 and died in 1491: when the language spoken in England was only just recognizably the English language we use today. There had recently been a major shift in pronunciation, the near-total pruning of Anglo-Saxon inflections, and an enormous influx of new words, mainly from the French brought over by the Norman conquerors who ruled court and country. 

Caxton lamented that English had changed from his youth when you could call a spade a spade — or eggs “eyren.” I have kept his spelling but modernized his punctuation for the sake of clarity:

A mercer, came in to an hows and axed for mete, and specyally he axyd after ‘eggys’. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no Frenshe. And the merchaunt was angry, for he also coude speke no Frenshe, but wold have hadde egges, and she understode hym not. And thenne at last a nother sayd that he wolde have ‘eyren’. Then the good wyf sayd that she understode hym wel. Loo! What sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte, ‘egges’ or ‘eyren’ ? Certaynly, it is harde to playse every man by cause of dyversite & chaunge of langage.     (Preface to Enydos , 1490).

If nothing else, the passage serves as a graphic example of just how much language changes. 

Many think that contemporary language is decaying as never before, but as Caxton proves, every generation seems to have believed this. A book published in 1863, The Queen’s English, (the Queen in question being Victoria), deals with such hoary chestnuts as “It’s me”  vs. “It’s I,” and tautologies like “very unique.” Similar matters regularly crop up in modern-day complaints from linguistic reactionaries who fail to understand that usage is dynamic rather than static.

English people observing the Academies in other European countries were concluding that nothing was being done to stem the flood of change. But as Dr. Samuel Johnson writes in the preface to his first Dictionary (1755):

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, century after century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from immutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption, and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affection.

On top of that laughably ossifying effect is the fact that applying Latin case grammar to English was a very ill-fitting coat by the time it was established as the academic language in England.  Prescriptive grammars can in any case only describe a language as it was, and, in the case of English, were often being used to describe the language as it never had been!

Although the idea is still occasionally mooted, there has never been an English academy. There has, on the other hand, been an ever-increasing flow of unique grammars, dictionaries, thesauri, and style manuals in all parts of the English-speaking world. Myriad books delve into different aspects of the English language today. Computer concordances are now shedding new light on how language is actually used, rather than how lexicographers and grammarians have thought it was used.

I quoted Richelieu above as having said that grammar “describes good usage and defends this from all causes of corruption.” But language is organic. It changes because society changes. It is inevitable and also unpredictable. This does not mean that we cannot teach a common standard — of course we can — but at the same time we should recognize the existence, indeed the immense variety of different language types. There is nothing teleological about language change — it merely happens. In the same way that the tide comes and goes, so language changes, but the tide never gets anywhere, never stops, it just ebbs and flows. So, in its way, does language.

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