By John E. McIntyre
The Baltimore Sun
10:23 AM EST, January 3, 2014
In a charming book by David and Hilary Crystal about sites in Britain important in the history of the English language,* there is a passage on Dryden and Swift and the eternally recurring and eternally hopeless call for an academy to regulate the English language.
It cropped up recently as a project of the Queen's English Society, an outfit that collapsed from its own futility. (Though it did afford me a little fun in imagining its proceedings.)
The Crystals explain succinctly why nothing has ever come of the idea: "It was Dr. Johnson who identified the fundamental flaw in the proposal. The French academy hadn't succeeded in 'fixing' their language, he observed; and if the French were unable to do it, with their absolutist government, what chance would an academy have faced with the bolshy, democratic British temperament?"
Going on, they quote Johnson: "We live in an age in which it is a kind of publick sport to refuse all respect that cannot be enforced. The edicts of an English academy woould probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them."
Johnson's dictionary and Noah Webster's did have some braking effect on change in the language, as has the establishment of universal public education. But language comes up from the bottom, from the people, and attempting to hand it down from the top provokes the people's inherent resistance to taking orders.
Look only at the stalemate over ain't, bitterly and brutally suppressed by generations of schoolmasters and schoolmarms. They have largely succeeded in barring the door of formal English, but it continues to flourish in speech.
If there was no hope of a body to regularize English in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the language was limited to Britain, look at it now, a world language. As the Crystals point out, "An academy to control the whole language, with its two billion speakers, is inconceivable now."
This is not to say that there are no standards of usage, or that taste and judgment play no part, but rather that your standards and judgments are going to be local and particular, made within contexts. Not universal.
English is a wild ride. Hold on tight.
*Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist's Guide to Britain (Oxford University Press, 424 pages, $34.95), about which, more anon.
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