[lg policy] Why Doesn=?windows-1252?Q?=92t_?=English Have an Academy?

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Dec 16 16:02:31 UTC 2013

 Why Doesn’t English Have an Academy?

The question routinely becomes a subject of debate. Does English need an
institution to safeguard it, or at least to regulate its health? Spanish
has the Real Academia Española; French, L’Académie française; Arabic, the
Academy of the Arabic Language; Mandarin Chinese, the National Languages
Committee; Dutch, the Nederlandse Taalunie; German the Rat für deutsche
Rechtschreibung; Hebrew, the Academy of the Hebrew Language; Irish, the
Foras na Gaeilge; Italian, the Accademia della Crusca; and so on. So why
doesn’t English have its equivalent?

There have been repeated attempts to create an Academy of English, first in
England, then in the United States. Intellectuals in England like Daniel
Defoe and Jonathan Swift passionately debated the issue, and politicians on
this side of the Atlantic, such as John Adams and his son John Quincy
Adams, suggested its function ought to be “to collect, interchange, and
diffuse literary intelligence; to promote the purity and uniformity of the
English language; to invite a correspondence with distinguished scholars in
other countries speaking this language in connection with ourselves; to
cultivate throughout our extensive territory a friendly intercourse among
those who feel an interest in the progress of American literature, and, as
far as may depend on well meant endeavors, to aid the general course of
learning in the United States.”

In an age such as ours in which immigrants get blamed for not “becoming”
Americans as fast, and as consistently, as their predecessors did, the
impression prevails that immigrants are the ones not speaking the language
as much as howling it. In England, in Canada, in Australia, and other
Anglophone habitats, a similar if less vociferous complaint is heard today:
immigrants ought to be blamed for the the general decline of civilization
and along with it—of course—the standard of our beloved language. Yet it is
immigrants who in the end often uphold the language with more pride. For
they came from the outside and thus need to prove their true worth. The
effect is similar to the convert to a new religion, who through the
conversion process  becomes a more knowledgeable, more devout believer than
those who were born into the religion. Ironically, it is immigrants like
Mary Antin, Vladimir Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Frank McCourt, Jhumpa
Lahiri, and Junot Diaz, to name only a few in the United States, who at
once protect and expand the parameters of the language, making it more
elastic, less constrained. A student of mine from Quito, Ecuador, often
repeats to me that he prefers English, his adopted tongue, because “it
chose me, Profe. So I must honor it.”

One might say that in the English-speaking world we have the *Oxford
English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster,* and other such lexicological
organizations. Don’t they serve the same role? Not quite, for these
entities aren’t in the business of decreeing a constitution that
establishes the parameters of what is permissible and what isn’t. The
*OED,*for example, doesn’t prescribe what words we use; instead, it
describes the
way those words change across time and space.

Do we need one, then? Linguistic academies are intimately linked to
nationalist ideologies. The Academy of the Hebrew Language came about as
the State of Israel consolidated its status as a free country. Centuries
earlier, the L’Académie française was established in 1635 by Cardinal
Richelieu. The Real Academia Española in Spain opened its doors in 1713 to
compete with its neighbor, L’Académie française. It would be preposterous
to suggest we are less nationalistic becomes we don’t have one. On the
contrary, English is vitalized all the time because it is an imperial
language: in reaching out, it absorbs influences from various environments.
It is said that for every native English speaker today there are between
three and four nonnatives. This equation signals the pressure felt by those
who were born into speaking English. It also points to the buoyancy
nurturing it everywhere on the globe.

My own response to the question is fugetaboutit. For better or worse, the
English language is an expression of the democratic values we uphold. In
other words, ours is a language of the people, by the people, for the
people. The only ones capable of defending it are us. And, needless to say,
we can also mess up with it. But that mess-up, in my opinion, is precisely
what keeps it on its toes. When I immigrated to the United States, in the
mid-eighties, bad in English was the antonym of good. Today bad and good
are often synonyms. Is that bad? No, it’s good.



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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