‘Academic’ English

The empire of English is crumbling–the language that brought the whole world together under the British Empire, and then even closer because of the global economic and cultural influences of the United States[1]. However, today, while still being the most important international language around the world, English has its foundations weakened, with its native speakers splitting further and further apart, separated more by dialects[2] than by distances.

How is it possible that in this same era, in which the powerful English is fading, languages like Catalan and Welsh, which were almost extinct, have experienced a linguistic revival[3]? How is it possible that other languages as important and diverse as English, like Spanish and French (or even more diverse, as the case of Chinese) have managed to become standardized across countries, thus keeping the cohesive strength of the language that is supposed to bring people and nations to an understanding? How can English be losing its worldwide linguistic empire, starting from its native speakers? It has been possible because of the academies, the regulating safeguards of language–institution which English lacks. An academy will be crucial in order to preserve the English language. Languages empower and unite people–an academy empowers and unites a language. English might be crumbling in times of globalization–academic English wouldn’t be torn asunder as easily.

Mistakes of the Past

Certainly, the idea of establishing an academy of English is not new; there have been attempts in both Great Britain and the United States since the 15th century[4]. In fact, there once existed an American Academy of Language and Belles Lettres in 1820, but it lasted only two years–yet another failed attempt.

Furthermore, establishing such an institution has been a goal or demand of important English-speaking authors like Jonathan Swift and David Hume, arguing that the English language needed to be fixed and freed from popular corruption. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language[5] (and his statements therein) might be the most significant instance of this type of proposal made by an intellectual regarding an academy of English.

However, many of these concerned intellectuals ended up agreeing that the degradation of English ultimately couldn’t be stopped, and that it might even be undemocratic[6] to fix it, for English belongs to the people, and it is them who change it–the doom of English is presumably inevitable.

Pros & Cons of the Pros

The approaches of the past to the matter of an academy of English were as wrong as the approaches of linguists today, despite the differences in periods and circumstances.

Though language in deed belongs to the people, its regulation shouldn’t be left to the people, since that means not having any regulation at all. Leaving entirely up to the “dictatorship of the masses”[7] the evolution of a widespread language such as English can be as disastrous as it is undemocratic, because then the evolution can (and will) be uneven in different parts of the world. Broadly different dialects have developed this way, with most of its speakers ignoring the differences between “their” English and other versions (for instance, British vs. American[8]). In older times, when traveling and news-traveling took longer, the existence of a local type of English was more “explainable” and perhaps not as important as this fragmentation is today, for it hampers communication in the “Era of Information” within communities of native speakers (the concrete example: the United States, its regional and urban dialects).

At the same time, experts, language mavens[9], are left nowadays with the tasks of tracking the differences and changes in English, and determining its correct grammar and the right usage of words (i.e. Oxford lexicographers[10] and style guides[11]). But these language authorities, besides being mostly self-proclaimed, close-knit elites, don’t always agree on their determinations, thence never reaching a true standard. An agreement on such a plural matter can only be achieved within an institution. An academy would prompt solutions to the problems and dilemmas that have been aching (and maybe fueling) the linguists and commentators–gender-neutrality, lexical gaps, proper pronunciation, among other issues, could all be resolved by the experts setting standards together as an academy of English.

Standard English?

What is standard English? Standard where? The United States, England, Louisiana, the Internet? Standard to whom? News journalists, philosophers, computer programmers? Standard for what? Chit-chatting, formal writing, singing, text-messaging? If standard English can be defined as that used by most educated speakers, then who are the educated? Are “the educated” the foreigners who actually learn English with all its intricacies (like adjectival order) that native speakers simply do out of habit without ever being strictly taught?

The answer is that there is no single standard for English. The British Received Pronunciation, and the American Good English are two standards of what can be considered two different dialects. The only way to establish a single standard English would be through an academy, which could determine and regulate the proprieties of English while also examining and considering the specifics of the dialects. Academic English would be the all-encompassing standard of the language, sanctioning instead of prescribing, in order to preserve the enriching linguistic variety of English and its dialects.

English vs. Spanish: The Reconquista

The need for an academy of English is epitomized by the current situation of the United States and the scare of a Spanish Reconquista[12]. The progressive increase of native Spanish speakers within the presumed English-speaking nation is usually attributed solely to immigration. Nevertheless, these Spanish speakers also resist integrating themselves entirely to the English-speaking community for reasons other than their immigration status–Spanish binds them together better than English can assimilate them.

English simply appears “weaker” (difficult or illogical), when compared to Spanish because the former lacks the academic foundations of the latter. For example, a native Spanish speaker will have lots of trouble learning the adjectival order rule because it is not regularly taught at American schools–despite existing, it happens to be a natural development among native English speakers with no follow-up in class. How can Spanish speakers convert to English when so much of this language remains unexplained to them? How can adjectival order be taught, though, if there is not a proper institution to regulate such matter?

Academic How-To: A Real Guide

Spanish, more than being a threat to the hegemony of English in the United States, could be the key to preservation–specifically if the Real Academia Española[13] (RAE; Royal Academy of the Spanish language) is taken as guide when establishing an academy of English. The RAE (contrary to its French homologue l’Académie Française[14]) doesn’t concern itself with imposing native-like neologisms (like couriel instead of email) or policing the language for the sake of linguistic purism[15]. Rather, the RAE focuses on achieving a better understanding of Spanish as a linguistic and socio-cultural phenomenon, stating as its mission “to safeguard the adaptation of Spanish to the needs of the speakers, assuring that such changes do not break the essential unity of the Spanish ambience.” As expressed by its founder, Juan Manuel Fernández Pacheco, the RAE was “to assure that Spanish speakers will always be able to read Cervantes.” The RAE accomplishes such goals by ruling in matters critical to the foundations of Spanish grammar and orthography (for example, written accents; comparable to the gender-neutrality issue in English), and by regulating the edition of an all-inclusive (though critical) dictionary. Everything is done by its life-long serving experts (prominent authors and linguists), who integrate the main body in Madrid, Spain, and its minor location-specific academies (i.e. Mexican, Argentinean) which deal with regionalisms and act as liaison with the educational institutions of each place to ensure the proper teaching of Spanish. This approach to regulation has prompted Spanish to evolve, adapting to new practices and assimilating new words into its lexicon almost at the speed these are generated by the educated Spanish speakers. This is how RAE reaches the entire Hispanic world and empowers Spanish to remain as a strong cultural bond.

An Academy of English could function just the same: with representatives of the scholarly and literary realms, gathered from each English-speaking location (i.e. Oxford, MIT, Cambridge), who would standardize English (its intricacies, like non-phonetic spelling, jargon, and slang), thus finding “unity in its diversity[16].” Only with an Academy, and not just the rule and use by the people, could English be empowered again, fixing the fragmentation among its native speakers with full education, and securing itself as the hegemonic global language.

Annotations and Works Cited

 

[1] Crystal, David  English as a Global Language, Cambridge University Press.

[2] Defined as “1: a regional variety of language distinguished by features of vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation from other regional varieties and constituting together with them a single language.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary 11th Edition.

[3] Crystal, David. Language Death, Cambridge University Press.

[4] Curzan. Anne; and Michael Adams. How English Works. Pearson-Longman Publishers.  34-35.

[5] Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language.

[6] As suggested by Johnson in his aforementioned work.

[7] Ortega y Gasset. The Revolt of the Masses.

[8] Crystal, David. The English Language. 232-291.

[9] Named by Steven Pinker, and referred in Curzan’s.

[10] Oxford English Dictionary. http://dictionary.oed.com/

[11] Strunk, William Jr.; and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. Longman Publishers.

[12] MacNeil, Robert. “Do You Speak American?”  PBS. TV Show. 2005.

[13] Real Academia de la Lengua Española. http://www.rae.es

[14] L’Académie Française.  www.academie-francaise.fr

[15] Thomas, George. Linguistic Purism (Studies in Language and Linguistics), Longman, 1991

[16] Another of RAE’s claims within their mission statement.

  • Patino Rosselli, Carlos. “Apuntes de linguistica colombiana.” Forma y Funcion, 2000, 67-84
  • Ward, Ben. “To Protect and Preserve.” Language Magazine. 2002 Nov; 2 (3): 14-16
  • Ross, Nigel J. “Academies and Attitudes.” English Today: The International Review of the English Language3.
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