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The sudden death of the English Academy

The internet is destroying language standardisation


The Financial Times December 9, 2014

I applaud the French Academy’s attempt to stop people using the hideous English term “upcycling”.

Not only is the academy’s suggested French replacement, “recyclage valorisant”, more elegant; it also helps explain what upcycling – turning discarded products into better ones – means.

But I fear that the academy’s effort will go the way of its attempt to replace “hashtag” with “mot-dièse”. Google “le hashtag” to see how ineffective that has been.

The anglophone world regards the French Academy as a joke – a pathetic attempt to block English’s relentless tide. English has no need for an academy, its champions believe. It evolves, adapts and triumphs, absorbing words from other languages with insouciance.

That has not always been the case. Prominent English speakers once pushed strongly for an academy. Jonathan Swift, in 1712, called for “some effectual Method for Correcting, Enlarging, and Ascertaining our Language . . . under the Protection of a Prince, the Countenance and Encouragement of a Ministry, and the Care of Proper Persons chosen for such an Undertaking.”

In his book The American Language, HL Mencken recounts how John Adams, later to become the US’s second president, suggested in 1780 the establishment of an American Academy, with the hope that England would follow suit.

Nothing came of either suggestion. But English has long had a highly-effective academy anyway. This academy did not try to keep out foreign words. But it did enforce rigorous rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Only in recent years has its power begun to fade. In fact, it is probably dying.

Online, anyone is an author, and you can publish your work unedited

What is, or was, this academy? it was made up of book, magazine and newspaper editors, school teachers, university professors and employers. Standard English – the language of the educated classes of the English-speaking world – provided the rules, and if you did not obey them, you could not have your work published, pass your examinations, graduate from university or get a decent job.

For example, there is nothing wrong, in principle, with a double negative (“I don’t know nothing.”) Other languages, including French, have them. English writers, such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, used them. But standard English abhors the double negative – and anyone using one revealed themselves to the academy as uneducated and, in the more desirable jobs, unemployable.

The academy watched out for whether people knew their “Mondays” from their “Monday’s” and whether they could distinguish between “compliment” and “complement” or “council” and “counsel”. The academy guarded a narrow gate, regulating who got into print, university or the best jobs.

But for how much longer? Just as the printing press brought standardisation to English spelling and usage, the internet, seen by many as the most significant development since the printing press, is destroying that standardisation.

You don’t need a publisher to find readers now. Online, anyone is an author, and you can publish your work unedited.

This doesn’t mean that everyone on the internet has abandoned standard English. Some of the most popular websites, for all their youthful verve and irreverence, adhere strictly to its rules. The gap between standard and non-standard English is not always a generational one. A lot of young writers care about the old ways.

But many of those writing online do not know or care. With more people writing than ever, non-standard grammar and spelling have become common. The more people write “your wrong about that”, the more others regard it as acceptable.

Could there be a backlash, a return to standard English as standard? The popularity of Word Crimes , a song by the US performer “Weird Al” Yankovic that damns grammatical and punctuation deviation, suggests there could be. But I suspect those listening to the song know the standard rules already.

The academy still has some power, which is why those who do not bother to teach young people standard English are doing them a disservice.

But I am struck by the number of university academics and employers emailing me who don’t know or don’t bother with the old rules either, regularly mixing up their “it’s” and “its”. The academy is losing its grip.


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