Tag Archives: Shakespeare

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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The staying power of English, and Shakespeare in Shona

Top five language stories this month with Patrick and cartoon queen Carol Hills:

5. Multi-lingual Shakespeare. All of Shakespeare’s 38 plays will be performed next year in London, each in a different language. Hosting this 6-week season — part of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad —  is the reconstructed Globe Theater. The environs may be authentically Elizabethan, but no-one back in the 16th century would have seen Titus Andronicus in Cantonese, The Tempest in Arabic, Love’s Labour’s Lost in British Sign Language, or The Taming of the Shrew in Urdu.

Given the diversity of languages and, presumably, styles of stagecraft, it’s surprising the Globe isn’t presenting these plays at a diversity of venues. Putting on plays at the Globe is all about conjuring up a specific time and place in English history. This season of plays seems designed to do the opposite. Think of all Shakespeare-inspired foreign language movies, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — based on Macbeth — that transport you worlds away. That’s when you get a sense of the universality of Shakespeare. I’m not sure if the setting of Globe for all these plays will convey that.

4. Texting surprises. Two new studies on texting are out. The first focusses on literacy acquisition, and the scond on the texting habits of Australians. In the first, a group of children in the UK were given mobile phones to text to their hearts’ content. Their literacy acquisition skills — reading and spelling — did not suffer as a result. In the second,  Austalians, and men in particular, expressed disatisfaction with texting shorthand (even the Aussie-specific stuff like totes (totally) and redic (ridiculous). Also — this is really surprising — more than 75% of  Australians age 65 years and older send at least one text a day. Those elderly Australians are totes techno. Redic!

3. Eliminating an unwanted language. In these times of language disappearance,  it’s not often you hear of an effort to willfully eliminate a language. That, though, it what’s happening in South African. The language in question is more like pidgin. It’s called Fanagalo, and it’s like a simplified version of Zulu, with some Xhosa, Afrikaans and English thrown in.  During colonial times, it was used as a language of instruction in the mines. Colonial bosses would issue orders to workers in Fanagalo. Over the years, it acquired quite a few technical mining phrases and so it is still used today. Now, there’s a debate in South Africa over its usefulness, even as there’s widely-held distaste for the way in which it came into being. The National Union of Mineworkers is pushing to have Fanagalo abolished — which has set South Africa’s Chamber of Mines thinking about how exactly to do that.

2. Keeping Russian and Chinese pure. Efforts are underway to keep Russian and Chinese free of English words and acronyms. Here are two languages that developed largely in isolation during large parts of the 20th century.  Now that Russia and China are more connected,  Russian and Chinese are having trouble incorporating (or resisting) Anglicisms. Some new Russian words include steyk-kholdery (stakeholders), autsorsing (outsourcing), riteyl (retail) and franchayz (franchise). New Chinese words often derive from English-language acronyms: NBA, CPI, WTO, GDP.

Both countries are taking ham-fisted approaches: Russia’s anti-monopoly service penalized a Japanese sushi chain which displayed a billboard saying Happy New Menu. It also took action against a sportswear store  using the expression new collection. China’s General Administration of Press and Publication issued an edict barring Chinese newspapers, books and websites from using English words and phrases. Neither approach seems likely to work.

1. New book sparks a debate about the staying power of English. Nicholas Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca makes the argument that one day in the distant future English will cease to be a global language, that most English speakers will be native speakers (right now, an estimated 30% of English speakers are native speakers).  Not only that, but it won’t be replaced by any other lingua francas. The world won’t need a common tongue, says Ostler, because we’ll all be able to speak in our own native tongues, and communicate via translation devices. Not surprisingly, Ostler’s theory/prediction has been roundly criticized, by champions of English as well as by techno-skeptics. Still, one of Ostler’s main points, that history has not stopped, and that language evolution has not played itself out, is well taken. And just look at Aramaic, Greek and Latin, all in their days lingua francas.

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Tuareg tales and the R word

The first pod story of 2011 comes from Mali, where a group of people are trying to use storytelling to preserve the Tamasheq language. The language is spoken by a dwindling number of the nomadic Tuareg people.

That’s followed by a conversation about the merits of the King James Bible, which turns 400 in 2011. In secular Britain, those merits aren’t strictly religious. In fact, people like former UK poet laureate Andrew Motion view the King James Bible as a literary giant, second only perhaps to Shakespeare. He argues that we are fast forgetting how it has shaped English-language poetry, fiction and rhetoric.

Then, the main event: the R word.  Or perhaps the R-rated word: rationing. For manyAmericans, the idea of rationing is, well, unAmerican. In Britain though, rationing is part of the national psyche: it got the country through two world wars, and its collectivist values are at the core of Britain’s government-run health service. Now though, the emergence of expensive, new end-of-life drugs are challenging Brits’ belief in rationing.

During World War II and for nine years after, the British government rationed most food items: meat, flour, eggs, sugar. The government also strictly controlled the supply of gasoline, soap, stockings—even the number of buttons on jackets.

Although there was wartime rationing elsewhere, including in the United States, it generally applied to fewer items over fewer years and was quickly forgotten. In Britain, however, rationing became a part of the national identity.

Many older Britons speak of rationing as a great legacy of those wartime and post-war years, when people sacrificed their own interests for the greater good.

After World War II, the British government extended this societal approach to health care. It created the National Health Service, the NHS.

Today, 95 percent of Britons get their care through the government-run program. In order to provide care to everyone, the government says it must place limits on the care it provides. It must ration.

Limits to Care

“We have a limited budget for health care, voted by Parliament every year, and we have to live within our means,” said Michael Rawlins, chairman of a government agency called the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

NICE decides which drugs and other treatments can be prescribed by NHS doctors.

NICE was created in 1999 to clarify the reasons why certain drugs are approved and others are rejected. “In the old days it used to be done in secret, behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms,” Rawlins said. “Now it’s explicit. Everybody knows what the rules are.”

NICE’s rationing decisions start with a basic premise: The government should spend its limited resources on treatments that do the most good for the money. NICE calculates cost-effectiveness with a widely used measure called a quality-adjusted life year (QALY).

In essence, NICE asks these questions: How much does a drug or procedure cost? How much does the treatment extend the average patient’s life? And what is the quality of that life gained?

The calculations are complicated, but imagine that a cancer treatment costs $100,000 and that it extends the life of the average patient by four years. That means the cost of the treatment per year gained is $25,000.

Now imagine that for part of those four years the patient will be in pain and bedridden. NICE might figure the quality of that life at 50 percent of perfect health. Under NICE’s formula, that would make the drug half as cost-effective. In other words, the result would be $50,000 per quality-adjusted year gained.

NICE has set a maximum that it will spend on a treatment: about $47,000 per quality-adjusted year gained.

NICE tends to assume, without always performing calculations, that most common treatments are cost effective—including insulin for diabetes, cholesterol-lowering drugs for heart disease, and kidney transplants.

Instead, NICE analyzes only selected therapies, such as expensive new drugs that may extend life at the end of life. It has calculated that some of the more expensive drugs meant to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease and some cancers fall below the cost-effectiveness threshold. In such cases, NICE says, the NHS shouldn’t pay for the drugs.

NICE chairman Michael Rawlins acknowledged that his agency’s decisions deprive some patients of drugs that may extend their lives by several months or more.

“We do recognize that the end of life is a very special time,” Rawlins said. “[It] allows people to attend weddings, see a grandchild born, seek forgivenesses.”

But he argued that if Britain spends a lot of money at the end of life, “we’re going to have to deprive other people of cost-effective care.” Rawlins said that might mean spending less money at the beginning of life—and might result in a higher infant mortality rate.

A Cancer Patient Fights Back

“Imagine how I feel when I hear people saying that if they give me the drugs I need to stay alive, babies are dying,” said David Cook, one of a growing number of British cancer patients speaking out against NICE and its rationing formula.

While sipping strong English tea in his village farmhouse kitchen, Cook argued that NICE’s logic breaks down when you go from the abstract formula to specific patients—like him.

A senior government manager in his fifties, Cook was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2004. Two years later his prognosis was bad.

Cook’s doctor said he would die within months unless he got a drug to slow the growth of his tumors. But the cost of the drug was high—too high for NICE in light of the advanced stage of Cook’s cancer—and the NHS refused to pay for it.

Cook fought back. He contended that NICE’s rationing formula calculates cost-effectiveness based on the average patient, but individual patients might do better on a given treatment, which would make the drug more cost effective than NICE suggests. Cook’s doctor believed that was true for him, so Cook pleaded his case before a panel of experts.

“I had to persuade a total of six people that were in the room” he said. “I had to talk for my life.” Cook won his appeal—he got the drug—but he resented that he had to fight for it, that he was treated as an exception.

Cook has other complaints about NICE.

He says the agency treats patients inequitably; it is more likely to reject drugs for rarer cancers like his because the treatments are more expensive than those, say, for breast cancer or lung cancer. “We’re being penalized for having…the ‘wrong’ type of cancer,” he said.

Cook contends that NICE overreaches by measuring the quality of a patient’s life. He said it should not be up to bureaucrats to decide that the life of a bedridden patient, for instance, is worth a quarter or a half that of someone in perfect health.

Cook further argues that NICE neglects an important fact—that by helping a patient live longer, a drug may improve not only that patient’s life but also the lives of loved ones. For his part, Cook remains active and working and has helped care for his wife, who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Public Backlash

Stories like David Cook’s—about the government restricting access to life-saving drugs—have become common in the British media.

Part of the reason is that many new cancer drugs have become available in the last few years, and some of these drugs are extremely expensive.

NICE’s rejection of such drugs has fueled a growing backlash against the agency. Patient groups and drug companies have called it heartless and indiscriminate.

NICE’s future now hangs in the balance.

In May 2010, Britain’s ruling Labour Party, which founded the agency, lost a general election. The new Conservative-led government has said it will establish a cancer fund, totaling more than $300 million a year, to pay for some cancer drugs turned down by NICE.

This comes at a time of economic crisis in Britain. The government is making large cuts in just about every other public service.

Health economist Alan Maynard of the University of York said it may seem compassionate to set up a cancer fund, but it undermines NICE at a time when the country needs to be reminded of the value of rationing.

These days in Britain, few speak favorably about an agency that was set up to ensure that the government could provide the best care to the most people.

“NICE is not very popular,” said writer Lionel Shriver. “I may be the only fan of NICE in the country. After all, it’s the organization that says ‘no.’”

Shriver is an American who lives in London. Her latest novel, So Much for That, is about the U.S. health care system and how, in her view, it failed a woman who was dying of cancer.  Shriver said her novel would have turned out “drastically differently” if she’d been writing about the British health care system.

The novel follows a character who has mesothelioma, a rare but deadly disease that is usually caused by exposure to asbestos. The character is partially based on a close friend of Shriver’s who lived 15 months after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. Shriver says her friend’s treatment cost $2 million.

“If she had been in the UK, that character would have been given palliative care alone,” said Shriver. “They would have tried to keep her comfortable and out of pain, but they would have skipped the major surgery. They would have skipped all that excruciating chemotherapy.”

“I think that my character and indeed my friend would have been better off in the United Kingdom,” Shriver said.

A Model for Other Countries?

Britain’s medical rationing has been noticed around the world. A steady stream of health officials from countries like Brazil, China, and Poland have visited NICE to see if setting up a rationing agency along similar lines makes sense for them.

Some American health care experts wanted to establish an agency like NICE as part of reforming the U.S. health care system. But after Sarah Palin cited Britain as the inspiration for what she claimed was an Obama Administration plan for “death panels,” that idea was dropped.

In fact, in this year’s health care reform law, Congress specifically prohibited British-style rationing. Medicare, for example, cannot apply quality-of-life tests in determining the cost-effectiveness of treatments.

Lionel Shiver is not pleased with that outcome. She said Americans still don’t seem ready to focus on some key end-of-life questions. “At least in the UK we’re having the conversation. How much is a life worth? And what kind of quality of life is that?”

But as other countries look to Britain as a model, it’s far from clear that the model itself will survive.

And that begs the question: Can explicit health care rationing work anywhere if it’s in trouble in the very country that may be best equipped to take it on?

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Deciphering ancient script and contemporary politicos

In this week’s podcast, another  five language stories that didn’t make headlines. Well, aside from the Sarah Palin one.  Discussing these stories with me are Rhitu Chatterjee, host of The World’s Science podcast, Clark Boyd, host of The World’s Technology podcast and Kevin II. Yup, that’s a picture of Kevin II, in The World’s broadcast studio.

5. An Israeli-British study shows bilinguals may respond differently depending on the language of the questions. According to the study, Arab Israelis are more likely to respond warmly to certain Jewish names if they are asked about them in Hewbrew, as compared to Arabic. Does this mean we think differently in different languages? No, but it might help explain why someone who is bilingual (or trilingual in Rhitu’s case) is “more polite” in one language.

4. New research points to a possible breakthrough in deciphering ancient scripts.

3. Sarah Palin compares her coinage of new English words to Shakespeare’s. Her most recent coinage, of course, was refudiate, which she said on Fox News and then tweeted a few days later. (She somewhat refudiated her own invention by zapping the tweet, before acknowledging it and making the Shakespeare comparison in a subsequent post.)  For his part, Shakespeare came up with gnarled, premediated, fitful, and hundreds more, none of them via Twitter. Maybe in time we’ll prize refudiate as highly. My guess though, is that like wee-wee’d up, an Obamaism, refudiate ain’t gonna make it. Let’s face it: most of Shakespeare’s coinages appear to have been based not on ignorance but inventiveness.

2. A science writer argues in a Discover magazine blog post that language diversity condemns a society to poverty. I don’t fully understand the argument, but it made for a lively conversation.

1. Clark’s adventures in linguistically confused Belgium. Yes, The World’s tech man about town has just moved to the land of beer, waffles and linguistic discontent. So which of the country’s two main languages should Clark learn, Dutch or French? And in choosing one, has he upset speakers of the other?  Mr Boyd reveals all, including the surprising nationality of the podcaster/language teacher he’s following.

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