Tag Archives: Academie Francaise

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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From Cicero to Lynne Truss with Robert Lane Greene

As soon as I saw the new book by Robert Lane Greene You Are What You Speak, I know he and needed to speak. Not just because we both speak Danish (we didn’t even talk about that). It’s mainly because the book takes on so many of the same issues that I do in The World in Words podcast. It’s like the pod on steroids,  done with proper research.

Underlying You Are What You Speak is a love of the relative chaos of language. We can’t predict, let alone control how language evolves, Greene argues, so why try? Well, it seems we can’t help ourselves.

Sometimes it’s governments that issue linguistic admonishments: France and Turkey have been especially active. Sometimes it’s individual armchair stylists:  Cicero (“At some point…I relinquished to the people the custom of speaking, I reserved the knowledge [of correct grammar and pronunciation] to myself”);  Strunk and White (“Do not join independent choices by a comma”); and Lynn Truss (“Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”).  Of that lot, Turkey’s switch from Arabic to Roman script appears to have been the most successful. In France, the Académie française is admired but largely ignored. And most of the archair stylists lose out to common usage. The more free, open and democratic a society is, the less it is likely to follow anyone else’s language rules.

This is just one way in which language is bound up in identity. Another is via the power of our mother tongue: how much does our first language set and restrict how we think, and how we perceive the world? Think of all those people who write in a second or third language.Lijia Zhang, who grew up in China, but writes in English, is convinced that her English self is different from her Chinese self. For one thing, Zhang says, she’s ruder in Chinese (the Big Show’s science podcaster Rhitu Chatterjee says the same of her native Bengali self).

Not only does English have words that don’t exist in Chinese, says Zhang. Also, writing in English frees her to say things that in her native tongue are taboo. She recalls a time in the 1980s when she met a young Chinese man “who I rather fancied.”  She said to him, in English, “you look cool.” It was somehow OK to say that in English; had she said it in Chinese, it would have meant instant rejection and humiliation.

Now, that may have as much to do with memory and custom as it does with the instrinsic nature of English vs. Chinese. The words in Chinese were available to Zhang. They were just freighted with expectation and fear. In English, Zhang could be irresonsible, and blame it on the language.

Greene deals with this question of language and personality by citing a number of recent studies, some of which we’ve talked about in previous pods (here and here). In linguistic circles, the pendulum has swung back and forth between those who believe that language shapes thought, and those who argue that thought forms language.

Listen to the podcast here, or below via iTunes.


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Google’s humanoid translator, accent phobia, and misleading job titles

In this podcast, our monthly top-five roundup of language stories:

5. Why Google Translate rules (and why human translators shouldn’t feel threatened.)  Google, as we’ve come to expect by now, does things differently. And that includes translation. We tend to think of translators as human or robotic. Google Translate combines the best of both. Which is why its translations can be poetic — yes poetic — as well as accurate. Of course, it’s still not difficult to outwit Google Translate, and make it fail. But with each new iteration, it’s getting better. However, it’ll only continue to improve so long as humans keep translating stuff (because Google Translate uses online human translations as its source material). Also, one day, Google may need to clarify that its translation tool,  however ubiquitous and accurate it becomes,  is no substitute for learning a foreign language. Humans live and thrive — and love and make money — by communicating  with each other. And they do that most effectively with their mouths, tongues and vocal chords.

4. Over-egging the job title pudding. The BBC reported that a weight-loss company recently advertized for a Product Testing Associate.  This job would consist of eating an extra 400 calories a day, as well as popping a few of the company’s Proactol pills. That got a bunch of readers of the online BBC article to relate their own favorite misleading job titles:  modality manager (translation: nurse, not to be confused with mortality manager); coordinator of interpretative teaching (tour guide); welcoming agent and telephone intermediary (receptionist); and field force agent (tax collector).  All of a sudden, I’m thinking my job title — language podcast host — isn’t  grand or pretentious enough. So henceforth, I will be known as a digitized philology presentation practitioner.

3. Accent discrimination. As a native English speaker with Brit accent (it’s drifted into the Atlantic after 20+ years in the United States) I think I’ve experienced positive accent discrimination.  Many Americans have told me they’ll  believe anything a Brit tells them — a good, if dangerous, thing for a reporter to hear. However, there are plenty of examples of the other type of discrimination. The latest concerns a US-based native French speaker who’s a senior partner in a global consulting firm. She speaks of being dis-invited to meetings with American clients, because of the fear that her accent would put them off.

2. The rise of Hindi (and English). My Big Show colleague Rhitu Chatterjee told me about an old friend of hers. He was born and raised in New Dehli by a Marathi-speaking mother and a Telugu-speaking father.  Because of the language divide, the languages of the household were Hindi and English; Rhitu’s friend neither spoke nor understood the native tongues of either of his parents. That story writ large is the linguistic story of modern India — multilingual marriages, migration to big cities, a big generational shift to Hindi and English. English has now eclipsed Bengali as the the second-most popular language in India, according to recent census analysis, and Hindi continues to dominate.

1. New French words to replace English invaders. The Académie française (pictured) is the jealous protector of all things French: it determines what can and cannot be said and written, even if people often ignore its pronouncements.  Often, the Académie finds itself with no alternative but to make up new words, usually when the hoi polloi are using one of those nasty English words (like podcasting).  Some officially coined terms stick (logiciel, meaning software); others don’t (frimousse, meaning smiley). Authorities have now taken a new tack: they have turned to the people themselves. Citizens sent in their suggestions for words to replace Anglicisms such as buzz and newsletter. A committee decided which to adopt.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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