What do the words mutton, sheep and robot have in common? Translation!

Photo: andrea via Flickr

Photo: andrea via Flickr


Here’s a guest post from Nina Porzucki.

Two translators on a ship are talking.

“Can you swim?” asks one

“No” says the other, “but I can shout for help in nine languages.”

Okay, not the best joke, and even though translation won’t exactly save you from drowning it is something that is all around us and that impacts our lives in many ways.

11431000Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring what translation is all about in a series we’re calling “In Other Words.”

If you go by what’s in the Bible, we’ve been in need of translators since the Tower of Babel. And this need has given rise to a whole host of interesting ideas — both real and fictitious — of how to better communicate with one another.

Remember the Babel fish? That small, leech-like fish that you stick in your ear and instantly translates any language. If only, Douglas Adam’s invention from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did exist.

“Is that a fish in your ear? Well no, it’s not, it’s a translator,” said David Bellows translator and author of Is that a Fish in your Ear? “There’s something going on that is very clever but it’s not magic.”

Oral translation or interpreting is as old as language itself. Humans have always spoken different languages and there’s always been a need for a middle man or a go-between. However scholars have actually pinpointed a starting point for written translation.

Writing arose around 5000 years ago but it wasn’t until about 2500 years ago that anything like a translation came into existence. The two first examples of translation occurred right around the same period.

In the middle of the 3rd century BC, a community of Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then a Greek speaking city, translated the Torah into Greek. That translated text is called the Septuagint.

“There are lots of myths and legends surrounding it but there are no surviving texts of the Old Testament that are older than the Greek translation,” Bellos said.

There are different accounts of how this translation came to be, according to Bellos. In one story Ptolemy II, adding to the great Library of Alexandria, sought to collect every known book in the world and commissioned a translation of the holy book of the Jews.

Another story is that the Jews of Alexandria had lost touch with the language of the bible and actually needed the bible translated into Greek.

“A bit like American Jews now,” said Bellos, “not very many American Jews really can read the Torah in biblical Hebrew.”

Meanwhile within a few decades of the creation of the Septuagint, across the Mediterranean in the southern part of Italy, a Greek-speaking slave, Livius Andronicus, was commissioned to translate Homer’s Odyssey from Greek to Latin, launching, according to Bellos, the classical tradition.

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

Fragment of a Septuagint (Wikimedia Commons)

“In a way you could say that translating of Homer is the beginning of an invention of the literature of Latin,” Bellos said.

So, Hebrew was translated into Greek, Greek into Latin, but what impact has translation had on English?

“English was made by translation — translation from Latin and above all translation from French,” Bellos explained.

A huge number of words came into English in the mash-up of the French the Normans spoke and the Anglo-Saxon the people spoke.

“And so English often has two words for the same things — one of French origin and one of Saxon origin, like, for example, sheep and mutton,” Bellos said. “Sheep is what the peasants looked after and mutton is what the masters ate.”

Mutton is the French word and sheep is the Germanic, or Saxon.

“We’re constantly translating between these two as we speak English and navigate the different registers of language that are more or less French depending on how high or low the register is,” Bellos said.

An example of one word that came to English purely through the translation of literature is “robot.” “Robot” is actually a Czech word and it came into English in the 1930s through the translations of the Czech writer Karel Čapek’s science fiction novels and plays. The word “robot” actually means “worker” in Czech.

Besides being a linguist, Bellos has been a longtime translator of French literature. And while he doesn’t quite believe that translation is a calling, the relationship between a translator and an author is a special one. For one, unlike the reader, a translator can’t skip over the boring parts of a book. A translator becomes intimately familiar with every single word.

“In a way the translator of a new book knows that book better than anybody else and that’s a great privilege and a great pleasure,” Bellos said.


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Parliamentary-style debates take off in China — even if some topics are off limits

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

A participant in the inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open 2014. Motions ranged from whether police should bear arms to whether ransoms should be paid to terrorists for the release of hostages. (Photo: Ruth Morris)


Here’s a guest post from Ruth Morris in Shanghai.

The inaugural Shanghai International Debate Open kicks off with 100 fidgety students in a small auditorium. Volunteers wear black t-shirts with English lettering that say: “Go back and read more.”

Then the first topic — or motion — appears on a screen. It reads: “This house regrets the ‘celebritization’ of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”

As soon as they find out what they’re debating, a couple of the students scramble to figure out what exactly the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is. It was popularized on Facebook, which is blocked in China, although it did spread to Chinese social media. The students rush to a judge with questions and she fills them in.

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team discuss strategy. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Education experts say Chinese authorities are waking up to the notion that Chinese students need to be independent thinkers if they want to produce their own Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And they say debate is one way to get there.

English-language British Parliamentary debate is gaining popularity here, especially among top students gunning for foreign universities.

“We want to use debate as a medium to give students education and enlightenment,” said Zheng Bo, the tournament’s chief adjudicator and a promoter of British Parliamentary debate in China. He says China’s education system is grounded in Confucian thinking, which poses a challenge.

“Teachers are given absolute authority and students just listen and recite, and remember,” Zheng Bo says. “So that created a lot of students that are really good at doing maths and physics … where there is a given answer. But when it comes to something without a standard answer … that’s creating a lot of trouble, because they are not familiar with this kind of practice.“

Debate is the perfect educational supplement, he says. It trains students to think critically.

British Parliamentary debate’s oppositional style might seem incongruous in China, since it divides teams into two sides — the government and the opposition — while China operates as a single-party state. Beijing also scrubs dissent from the Internet and constantly stresses harmony and social stability.

So motions tend not to veer into highly sensitive areas, like Tibetan independence, but they still range widely. Government policies are not off the table.

Participant Steve Chou says debate taught him to step back from political flashpoints and take a more reasoned approach. For example, China’s emotionally charged maritime dispute with Japan.

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Two members of a debate team make their point. (Photo: Ruth Morris)

China’s primary education “taught you to love your country, to be patriotic,” Chou says. “But through debate, we see that even though you do not praise your country does not necessarily mean you are not patriotic.”

Another debater goes by the English name Sloan. She believes that British Parliamentary debates will keep growing in China.

“It kind of has this life-long influence on you,” she says. “This kind of critical thinking [is] always with you and influences the people around you.”

Participants also say they consider debating in English to be easier than in Chinese. In English-language debates, you can be simpler and more direct, they say. On the other hand, Chinese debates tend to have really abstract topics, like “Is IQ more important that EQ?”

The tournament concludes with a highly controversial motion to prosecute Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for hate crimes against Palestinians. One of the winners is from Hong Kong, where many residents are currently demanding greater democracy from Beijing. That subject didn’t come up in the debates.

Before the students leave, Zheng Bo offers a final critique. He says debaters omitted concrete examples to support their arguments.

He tells them, “Go back and read more.”


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A University of Kansas linguist is risking Russia’s ire in helping Kazakhstan change its writing system

Will these Kazakh schoolchildren use Cyrillic or Latin script in the future? (Photo: Maxim Zolotukhin/World Bank via Flickr)

Will these Kazakh schoolchildren use Cyrillic or Latin script in the future? (Photo: Maxim Zolotukhin/World Bank via Flickr)

Kazakhstan has decided that its national language, Kazakh, needs a new writing system.

For decades, it has been using the Cyrillic script, a legacy of Soviet times. Now, though, Kazakhstan’s long-term president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been re-orienting his country away from Moscow, and toward the West.

And so it was that in late 2013, Kazakh linguists got in touch with Allard Jongman, chair of the linguistics department and a phonetics specialist at the University of Kansas.

“I was contacted by a graduate student working on this project, and he wrote to me rather than the professor because the professor doesn’t know any English,” said Jongman in an interview on Kansas City public radio station KCUR’s Central Standard program. “He said, ‘Look, we’re trying to convert our writing system. But … we don’t know exactly what the consonants and vowels of Kazakh are.'” (Click on the audio button above to hear the interview.)

Jongman told interviewer Gina Kaufmann there are two reasons why Kazakhs are confused about how their language should sound, both having to do with Soviet domination. First, the language is full of imported Russian words that have sounds in them that are not native to Kazakh.

Second, Cyrillic script is tailored to Russian sounds, and sometimes it doesn’t do justice to Kazakh sounds. Over the decades, though, Kazakh has made accommodations, and that’s changed some pronunciations.

It’s not clear that the Latin alphabet will be any more accurate, of course. Jongman is aware that the whole project could backfire.

“It could really screw things up,” says Jongman. But he doesn’t think it will.

And then there are the geo-politics. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the break-up of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. He has invaded the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. Kazakhs fear they could be next.

In August, Putin questioned whether Kazahkan is really even a nation. He said President Nazarbayev had “created a state in a territory that had never had a state before. The Kazakhs had no statehood.”

Russia shares a 4,000-mile border with Kazakhstan. The Kazakh army is tiny in comparison to Russia’s. Not the easiest set of circumstances in which to introduce a new writing system.


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The man who claimed to be a whaler, and other online dating adventures of Anya Ulinich

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr

Photo: Mike Licht via Flickr


Here’s a post from New York-based writer Alina Simone.

Never has the art of finding love been more entwined with the art of writing. And the potentially life-changing issue of who you attract and how you attract them comes down to one key document: your profile.

Writing, dating and love are central themes in Anya Ulinich’s funny and raw new novel, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, which follows a Russian-American divorcee’s descent down the rabbit-hole of online dating.

Like her protagonist, Ulinich was also born in Russia, and also discovered online dating after her marriage ended. I caught up with Anya at her apartment in Brooklyn to discuss the art of profile writing and how being foreign-born can unexpectedly complicate things. Even when it comes to answering simple questions, like “what’s the first thing people notice about you?”

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

Anya Ulinich (Photo: Alina Simone)

“If I say, ‘I speak with an accent,’” Ulinich explains, “then when we meet, I will get these boring, boring questions, like ‘Where are you from? How long have you lived in America? How do you like the USA?’ It’s a real non-starter. I just want to run away.”

But if she doesn’t mention she’s an immigrant?

“Then there is this shock when I meet someone,” says Ulinich. “Like they have to adjust to the way I talk. You can see them recalculating what they expected versus what they see in front of them — and that’s unpleasant too.”

In other words, if Ulinich doesn’t want to be cast in the unsexy role of all-immigrant, all the time, she has to be strategic with her reveals, navigating sure giveaways like the ubiquitous list of music preferences.

“My music preferences are just bizarre,” Ulinich tells me. “They’re just very, very strange. I listened to things that my grandmas loved from 1950s Soviet movies and I have a soft spot for really corny Soviet rock music from the 80s. I absolutely did not say the truth in that section. I just put down Radiohead and some things that I knew was OK to like in order to not just be outright rejected by men in New York.”

It’s depressing to think we must all circle the musical drain of Radiohead in order to find love. I mean, if everyone is out there lying about their adorable quirks then how will we ever get to know one another? According to Ulinich, it’s less about hiding things and more a matter of calibration. “I think you experiment in your profile with sort of the shades of truth. It’s not really lying — because I do love Radiohead — it’s just — it’s a mission. You omit the guilty pleasures, you omit things that make you seem too much of a foreigner.”

A page from Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

A page from Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, a graphic novel by Anya Ulinich (Courtesy Penguin Books)

However being foreign-born not only colors how Ulinich is perceived, but how she judges potential suitors. Take the question: “Would you date someone who lives with their parents?”

“As an American, in my mind, what that implies is someone who’s, like, a total loser,” Anya admits. “But there are all these other scenarios. For example if you’re making a living here and then you bring in your parents from another country and you’re supporting them.”

Actually, Ulinich did go out on a date with a guy who lived with his mother — but for a different reason. As a writer, she cares a lot more about creativity than whether someone is a hottie. And this guy claimed to be … a “whaler,” as in harpoons and blubber.

“He was genuinely crazy. But I like crazy on paper. With crazy-on-paper it’s like this: sometimes you meet them and it’s 50-50. There’s a 50 percent chance that this person’s really funny and messing with the format. And 50 percent chance that they’re genuinely, like, an insane man. So you take those chances.”

Taking those chances turned actually finding a boyfriend into something of a whale-hunt itself. But Ulinich still had her deal-breakers: Anyone professing a love of fantasy novels was automatically out. I mention that I’m in the middle of Clash of Kings, and even though Ulinich wouldn’t date me, I’m not offended. Let’s face it, when you’re trying to squeeze the entirety of your human essence into one literary bullion cube: Every. Word. Counts. Even your username, which in Anya’s case was “Victory Day.”

Russians immediately recognize “Victory Day” as a reference to May 9th — the day the Nazis capitulated to the Russians during World War II. But Ulinich wasn’t trying to attract flag-waving patriots from the Motherland or anything — May 9th also happened to be the day Anya had her first kiss back in Russia, more of a personal Victory Day.

American guys had their own interpretations though. “I dated two guys who were still obsessed with their ex who was named Victoria,” Ulinich told me. “Or they would say it sounds like a porno-name.”

Then last November she received a message from a potential suitor which began, “if this were back in May, I would congratulate you with the Nazi capitulation.” And Ulinich thought, “Well that’s cool!”

It turned out the guy was an art-historian with an apartment full of books about Socialist Realism — think idealized paintings of tractors and people picking wheat — which Ulinich ranked just below fantasy novels. But by then, they’d taken their relationship offline, where there’s no limit to the length of your answers. Or the depth of your questions. They met the week Ulinich handed in the final draft of her novel — and they’re still together.


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India’s new leader favors the Hindi language, which is a problem for the country’s 50 million Urdu speakers

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (baklavabaklava via Flickr)

Here’s a post from California-based reporter Sonia Paul.

I spent several months in Lucknow, India, studying Urdu.

I knew that it would be a daunting task. But I had a leg up — it wasn’t going to be completely new. Several years ago, I’d studied Hindi, which the native tongue of about 25 percent of Indians. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, appears to favor Hindi, which has alarmed speakers of India’s many other languages.

To the untrained ear, Hindi and Urdu sound similar. They share a lot of the same vocabulary. But they use different scripts. And they have different connotations.

In India, Urdu is generally associated with the Muslim population.

“I come from a Muslim family, and since we were kids, we were supposed to read Urdu,” said 21-year-old Nusrat Ansari.

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

Nusrat Ansari practices her Urdu writing skills. (Courtesy Nusrat Ansari)

I met her in Lucknow, when she was auditioning to perform Dastangoi, an ancient Urdu storytelling art that’s being revived. She said that as a child, she spoke mostly Hindi.

“At that point in time I wasn’t that interested in Urdu, so I didn’t take it up properly. But once I went to college and I had a bit of cultural thing,” said Ansari. “I thought, okay, I should learn Urdu,” Nusrat said.

“What do you mean by ‘cultural thing?’”I asked her.

“I started engaging in all sorts of … cultural revivalism activities.”

Hindi and Urdu are so similar that when Ansari was listening to the lines she had to memorize — which were in Urdu — she wrote them down in the Hindi script. Similarly, when I started learning Urdu, I also started out by writing in Hindi.

Writer and performer Mahmood Farooqui, who has been reviving Urdu storytelling, says reciting Urdu is a sign of prestige in India.

“Our radio anchors like to use Urdu, our television anchors like to use Urdu, parliamentarians like to use Urdu poetry, political leaders — even Modi recites a couplet or two,” he said.

But you won’t find India’s new prime minister giving a speech in Urdu. Because he’s such a staunch advocate of Hindi, many people are wondering whether his new language policies are part of a larger plan to wean out languages like Urdu.

Urdu’s origins are different from that of Hindi’s: Hindi’s script stems from Sanskrit, while Urdu traces its roots to Persian. It came into being in India around the 15th century, when Persian began to mix with local north Indian dialects. And by the 18th century, Urdu was an important literary language in India.

“It’s like English is now, in the sense that it was the language of prestige,” said Mehr Farooqi, a South Asian languages scholar at the University of Virginia. “It was considered to be the language of educated people. So everybody studied Urdu, and therefore they spoke Urdu.”

But about a 100 years ago, Urdu started to decline in India. The British wanted a common language for the country, and more and more people wanted Hindi to be that language. Hindi and Urdu — even though they were so similar in spoken form — became symbols of religious difference.

“It became like Urdu equals Muslim, Hindi equals Hindu,” said Mehr Farooqi.

This is why the new government’s promotion of Hindi is so controversial. It puts a spotlight on India’s postcolonial division into India and Pakistan. And it was another setback for Urdu, said storytelling artist Mahmood Farooqui.

“You had a lot of Hindu nationalists and Hindu fundamentalists saying Urdu created Pakistan, so let’s ban it, said Farooqui. “There was a lot of discrimination against it in schools, the government did nothing to propagate it, or to help its cause. And that continues to be the state of affairs today.”

And while some people, like Nusrat Ansari, are motivated to learn Urdu, she admits the language is struggling.

“I have met a lot of people who are really interested in this language and who would like to learn it,” she said. “But I wouldn’t say that it’s very popular and everybody understands it. Most people haven’t been that exposed to it.”

This exposure will be harder to come by if the new Hindu nationalist government keeps favoring Hindi over India’s other languages. That would only compound the problems Urdu’s already facing. But there are about 50 million native Urdu speakers in India — and others, like Ansari, who are rediscovering the language through its cultural heritage. So while Urdu may not have the same dominance in India it once did, it looks like there might still be a place for it in the country.


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John Smith, Pocahontas, and the beginnings of American English

A detail of a window panel at St Helena's Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

A detail of a window panel at St Helena’s Church in Willoughby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Willoughby, Lincolnshire is a village a few miles inland from the North Sea.

It’s also the birthplace of adventurer John Smith. Smith was baptized in the village church, St Helena’s.

The church dates back to the 14th century. There have been several additions in the past few decades — gifts from various American organizations.

There are a series of stained glass windows as well as plaque and other items. Together they depict John Smith’s life: His arrival on American shores, the settlement in Jamestown that he governed, which began the expansion overseas of the English-speaking peoples; and his encounter with the native American, Pocahontas.

There are other scenes that are less known to Americans: Smith’s schooling days, his training as a soldier, his fighting days in Europe. Most of what we know comes from Smith himself, who wrote several books about his adventures.

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena's Church in Willougby, Britain  (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St Helena’s Church in Willougby, Britain (Photo: Patrick Cox)

There was the time he was captured in what is today Turkey.

“He became a slave, and eventually he killed his slave-master, nicked his clothes, nicked his horse and rode back to England one way or another,” says Daffyd Robinson, former rector of St. Helena’s church in Willoughby.

But it wasn’t all breathless action. Smith was a great communicator too.

“He would have learned several languages along the way, going up into the Turks, going through France,” says Robinson. “And so when he got to America, to him it was important to learn the local language, and that saved him several times probably.”

The word “probably” is a useful one when it comes to Smith.

We can’t verify much of what he wrote. And most historians find his memoirs unreliable.

There is, for example, an episode in Turkey in which a girl saves Smith’s life by pleading with his captor, just as Pocahontas did a few years later.

All of which has given the likes of Disney a conveniently free hand. Their two animated films about Pocahontas are largely fiction. There is still plenty of debate about just about every aspect of Pocahontas’ life.

What is clear, is that the settlers and local met, traded and taught each other words from their languages.

British linguist David Crystal, co-author with Hilary Crystal of Wordsmiths and Warriors: The English-Language Tourist’s Guide to Britain, says it took surprisingly little time before the settlers incorporated local words into their vocabulary.

“It only takes a few weeks before the first signs of this new dialect of English starts to emerge in the letters that these mariners sent home to their families, says Crystal. “Words like skunk, wigwam or moccasin.”

Words are one thing, but what about an accent? Surely, settlers born in England wouldn’t speak differently after just a few years in Jamestown?

“It does take longer for a community accent to evolve, but not that long,” says Crystal. “Already in the 1620s and 30s, American settlers coming back to England were being commented on for their accent — people were saying, ‘What a strange way of talking you’ve got.’ Within a generation, enough had changed for it to be a noticeably different way of talking.”

A few contemporary accounts tell us this. But we don’t know for sure what British accents sounded like then, and how American accents may have diverged from them.

Stained glass windows in St Helena's Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith's life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans.   (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Stained glass windows in St Helena’s Church, Willoughby. The window panels depict scenes from John Smith’s life. They are among several items in the church that were donated by Americans. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In St. Helena’s church in Willoughby, some of the most basic questions about John Smith are unanswered. Like, when he was baptized.

“If you look at the register, and you look at the window and you look at the plaque, that’s three different actual dates when he was baptised,” says the retired rector Robinson.

A good reminder, if one were needed, that we can be certain of very little when it comes to John Smith, and Pocahontas.

What we can say is that Smith’s arrival in America was a big moment for English. Not that anyone knew it then, but in leaping from a small island to a huge continent, English had gone global, or started to.

The language was in an early stage of reinventing itself with new words, phrases and spellings — something it repeated in places like Australia, India and Africa, creating not one, but many Englishes. Something it’s still doing today.


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How English nearly got a language academy

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tim Hankins helps maintain All Saints Church in Aldwincle, England. Poet John Dryden was born in Aldwincle and baptized in the church. (Photo: Patrick Cox)

In the tiny village of Aldwincle in the flat center of England, farmer Tim Hankins helps look after the village’s most famous building.

Today, he’s showing me around All Saints Church. Strictly speaking, it’s no longer a place of worship; it’s overseen by an organization known as the Redundant Churches Commission.

It’s a shell inside, almost empty. But on the wall, there’s a plaque that explains the significance of All Saints: this was the place where John Dryden, former poet laureate of England, was baptized.

Dryden was born 1631, 15 years after Shakespeare died. Tough act to follow.

Dryden’s poems and plays were nothing like Shakespeare’s. Where Shakespeare was evocative and inventive, Dryden was precise and refined.

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert, circa 1695 (via Wikimedia Commons)

John Dryden was a man of many opinions. Foremost among them was that English — like a naughty schoolboy — was behaving badly. He thought that Shakespeare and his contemporaries were not — as we think now — the leading lights in a golden age of English literature, but a bunch of punks who reveled in showy, linguistic chaos.

English was crying out for rules, Dryden thought. And if English didn’t possess those rules, it should import them. From Latin.

“He held Latin to be the superior language, the language par excellence,” says David Crystal, who has co-authored a book about places of significance to the evolution of English.

“The best thing English could do,” he said, “is to follow the elegance, the clarity, the diction, the style of the great Latin authors.”

Here’s one Latin-inspired idea: You should never end a sentence with a preposition. “It’s Dryden who thinks up this rule,” says Crystal.

It is a rule that, even today, some people insist on. Dryden thought that most of his rules, though, wouldn’t stick unless they could be enforced.

The best thing to do, thought Dryden, was to follow the example of the French and institute a language academy.

The Académie française had just come into being, on order from King Louis XIII, to “give exact rules to our language.”

A committee chaired by Dryden got together and started to plan for an English academy that would try to control the language, in the way that the French had tried to control theirs.

David Crystal, for one, thinks it’s just as well that Dryden failed. For one thing, he says, academies tend to create a kind of linguistic snobbery.

“If you have an academy, you have a centralizing force and a single variety of the language is held up as being the one that everybody should use,” says Crystal. “This means that if you speak or write the language differently, according to that view, there’s something a bit inferior about that — and you certainly don’t like it if some other part of the world takes your language and tries to change it some way.”

Of course, you don’t need a language academy for that — people all by themselves will decide that they speak the Queen’s whatever, and others don’t. But an academy can intensify snobbish attitudes. It can also alienate those don’t speak the “right” way, making the language potentially less popular over time.

Academies can do good, too, says Crystal. Some produce dictionaries and fund research. But for those academies, whose main goal is to control language, well, Crystal thinks they’re doomed to failure. He says Dryden’s conception of an English academy was misguided then, and were it to exist today, it would be ignored.

“In Britain, for the most part, people say if the Americans want to talk like that, let them talk like that — anyway what could we do about it?” says Crystal. “When you think of English as a global language spoken in every country in the world either as a first or second language, or a privileged foreign language, what chance would there be of the entire population of the United States respecting the views of that academy? Or the other two billion people in the world who speak English as a global language?”

That linguistic cat is indeed out of the bag. And frankly, it was never really in the bag. English has been unruly and full of dialects from its beginnings.

So why did John Dryden’s English language academy never come into being?

As it turned out, his timing was terrible. Just when he was trying to hold meetings and drum up support for his idea, the Great Plague struck London, followed a year later by the Great Fire. There was a mass exodus from the capital. And that was that.

Today, Dryden is remembered mainly for his creative writing. And the church that baptized him has been transformed into a sort of village cultural center.

“It’s open to the public to use,” says Tim Hankins. “We’ve had people come and do art exhibitions in here. And we’d had plays down here.”

Hankins tells me of another activity at the church: champing.

I ask him what that is; I’ve never heard of champing.

Hankins says that is staying overnight in the church. A combination of church and camping.

“It’s a new thing,” he says. “I hadn’t heard of it until yesterday.”

A new thing, and a new word. John Dryden might not have approved. But people use the word, and that’s enough to call it English.


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