The Queen’s English Society has recently set up an Academy of English under the direction of one Martin Estinel, a retired translator. Its avowed aim is “to set down a clear standard of what is good, correct, proper English”. This is necessary, he says, because “At the moment, anything goes.” (http://tinyurl.com/3y873gu)
Now, I have dealt before with the ridiculous assertion that linguistic anarchy rules (see my Badlinguistics post for Feb 16th ) so I won’t go over that again. Suffice it to say that any given sentence of any person speaking any language has more grammar in it than you can shake a stick at. What I’ll concentrate on here is the equally ridiculous assertion that ‘good, correct proper English’ can be decided by a committee sitting in judgement.
The central problem with the idea of an English Academy is, who gets to sit on the committee? What qualifications, apart from an overweening desire to tell other people off, fit you for this job? Do you have to be an expert in English? If so, how do you get to be one? Is there an exam? If so, what is the syllabus, what is the text book? If there is a text book, who wrote it, and how did that person get to be such an expert that he or she could write the book to teach other people to be experts? Is the current book based on an earlier book by a now deceased expert? If so, where did the deceased expert get the expertise to write that book? How far back do we go before we find the rules of good, correct, proper English engraved on stone tablets?
Or perhaps the committee would not refer to an authority, but base its judgments on what it collectively likes and does not like in current English. Mr Estinel is a stickler for the apostrophe, hates the word gay to mean homosexual, can’t tolerate young people using like ‘to break up sentences’ (see Badlinguistics for February 9th) and deplores the loss of the conditional when ‘if I was you’ is used instead of if I were you. He also complains that “People misplace stress within a sentence. All these things are going haywire in the language.”
Leaving aside the fact that none of these things are evidence of linguistic haywire but of Mr Estinel’s prejudice and ignorance, let us ask how the decisions of a committee of language guardians would be enforced. (Could you, for example, imagine Harrods or Boots meekly adding an apostrophe to their names because Mr Estinel and his colleagues declare that these are possessive nouns and so need one?) As the great Samuel Johnson remarked, the British would only care about the rules handed down by the Academy in order to make sure they disobeyed them at every opportunity.
The only true arbiter of what is correct or incorrect in a language is usage. Simple as that. If usage shows us that gay nearly always means homosexual in informal contexts, then that’s good informal English. If usage shows that gay increasingly means homosexual in formal contexts too, then it’s getting to be good formal English. If a diminishing few speakers still use gay for cheerful , then that’s still good English, though you need to note that it is becoming an archaism.
Forget committees of old people with bugbears and little else. It was not committees which created the language of Shakespeare out of the language of Chaucer, or the language of T.S. Eliot out of the language of Jane Austen. Languages find their own way though time and future poets will show that whatever form 21st century English takes, it will still be a wonderful vehicle for human thought. Trust me, Mr Estinel. I know whereof I speak.