A failure I'd love to watch
You may have missed this news, but The Queen’s English Society, self-appointed defenders of proper speech and writing since 1972, recently announced plans to set up an Academy of English.
The goal is to guard against “impurities” and “bastardizations” by ruling on what in English is correct, and what is simply unacceptable. The academy would be modeled after the Académie Française, which for nearly 400 years has rigorously policed which words are allowed into official French, as well as similar bodies in Spain and Italy.
The idea of an Academy of English isn’t a new one — Jonathan Swift suggested one in 1712, with one of his goals being to prevent people from pronouncing words like rebuked with two syllables instead of three (he preferred re-buke-ed). But it’s not one that has ever made much progress towards reality.
As a lexicographer, I used to be strongly against the idea of an Academy of English. English is too widespread and dynamic, and English speakers too creative, to be reined in by some stodgy committee debating whether or not toughicult (tough + difficult) or oneitis (the condition of concentrating romantic attention on one person) can be considered “standard English.”
But this recent attempt by the Queen’s English Society has me thinking, cynically, that perhaps this time an Academy of English is a good idea. Not because English needs a standards body — or could ever possibly obey one — but because I think that, by showing just how ludicrous and unworkable a standards-setting body would be, we can get people to think more kindly of English as it is, and stop lamenting that everyone else’s language isn’t up to snuff.
The founder of this current incarnation of the “Save English” movement is Martin Estinel, a 71-year-old retired translator and interpreter who lives in Switzerland. Part of his motivation for founding the academy lies in his discomfort with people who use the word gay to mean anything other than “happy,” and his desire to keep any other words from going down the same path.
It’s hard to find anyone under the age of 71 who feels as strongly about gay as Mr. Estinel, and the other bugbears of the Queen’s English Society seem just as wrongheaded. The society has taken a stand against gender-neutral language (such as chairperson) and the use of the title Ms.; it is strongly opposed to txtspeak (though the overwhelming evidence shows that txtspeak is not overtaking standard English), and deplores Americanisms. Its battle plan, in other words, is one long rear-guard action against natural language change.
A new academy would (in its own words) “have a body to sit in judgment,” but hasn’t yet nominated anyone to do the actual judging. This is where things could get interesting. From my point of view, anything that focused our attention on the validity of the rules themselves, rather than on someone supposedly breaking the rules, would be a great thing for English.
We would want, of course, a process that unfolded as publicly as possible, starting with written statements of what the nominees believe to be standard and nonstandard English. There could be Oxford Union-style debates between candidates. Which writers, linguists, and general-purpose pundits would qualify? Who would be comfortable even allowing their work to be scrutinized to the extent necessary for their confirmation? Since it’s impossible for even the most devout prescriptivist to follow all the rules that he or she espouses (as the linguist Geoffrey Pullum has pointed out, even E.B. White, coauthor of “The Elements of Style,” broke his own rules), we could imagine the nominees having to defend first their rules, and then their infractions — much to the edification of those watching.
And, of course, we would want the potential academicians to take a public stand on real words — which they thought were useful additions to English, and which were pointless fads. They’d have to explain why some verbings of nouns were okay (campaign) while others were unacceptable (impact, gift), and exactly who is insulted by gender-neutral use of the word dude. There would be hours of discussion about what distinguishes a useful new word from vulgar slang or unacceptable jargon. (Bling and top kill alone could occupy entire news cycles.)
The UK-based academy is seeking a royal charter, which would imply some degree, however small, of governmental authority — and create other delicious questions, like whether it could blackball words from government publications, or sell licenses or seals of approval. Considering that they don’t just hand out royal charters, however, it’s fair to consider that something of a long shot.
There’s obviously something appealing in the idea of a set of rules for English: Just follow these few precepts and no one can criticize you, or so the thinking goes. It works for playing board games. But English is (thankfully) messier, wider-ranging, and much too alive to be hemmed in by a set of checklists and “don’ts.” So bring on the academy, I say: Let the arguments begin!