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What is the role of the modern-day language academy?

ByAnna Whealing

Jan 18, 2018

English, like all languages, is a mismatch of words, grammar systems and spellings from many related tongues; including Old High German, Old Norse, French, Latin and Greek. But the fascinating thing about languages is that it is always in a state of flux, and this change is predominantly led by speakers themselves. As speakers adapt to new environments, fashions and technologies, they adapt the language accordingly, which is why ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015.

Against the tides of change however, there is often retaliation. Linguistic prescriptivism is the school of thought which believes that some forms of language are more logical, aesthetic, basically better than others.

It is this belief which drives the Académie Française, formally established in 1635 under King Louis XIII, with the aim to order and standardise the French language. Spain’s equivalent, Real Academia Española, was founded in 1713, and Italy has had its Accademia della Crusca from as far back as 1583. In fact, many European languages have academies which seek to regulate, record and keep their language pure.

Why are these institutions necessary? The Académie Française is not legally binding and, although they produce a dictionary that is regarded as official, they have also been criticised as being too conservative.

‘Selfie’, ‘hashtag’, ‘chat’, and ‘weekend’ are all commonly used by French speakers today even though the Académie Française recognises ‘bavarder’ (to chat) and ‘fin de semaine’ (weekend) as formally correct. Younger generations especially like to adopt and play with English expressions.

It seems that most European academies are effectively trying to save their language from this rapid encroachment of Anglican neologisms into their vocabulary.

Globalisation affects language and, as English becomes the dominant global language, other dialects are regressing. Scots Gaelic has all but died out, and without such academies, Welsh, Irish, Catalan, and Basque might soon follow suit.

What is more, without language standardisation, communication would be pretty hard. English had its own language crisis from around 1500 to 1650. This was the age of rapid new ideas, new technologies, and new science; the printing press had arrived in Britain in 1476 and with it came an increase in media, published works and cheap books. Shakespeare was also hard at work fixing many slang terms and little known words into our vocabulary forever.

As a result, literacy in Britain increased and suddenly the great thinkers of the age began to worry about the state of their language. They created dictionaries which standardised spelling and meanings so everyone could understand each other and distinctions between ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ language could be made. 

English has no language academy but there definitely exist people in the community who believe their understanding of language is superior, and that having an emoji as the word of the year is ridiculous.

At the end of the day, language communities will always borrow things from each other. Some Brits consider it fashionable to use ‘ciao’ or ‘chica’ in everyday speech, and words like ‘karma’, ‘faux pas’, ‘avocado’, and even ‘emoji’ have all made it into our dictionaries and regular vocabulary.

It’s also true that the huge diversity of languages in Europe and all across the globe is important to our heritage, our sense of community and the greater progression of language. With a bigger pool from which to borrow words and experiment with expressions, speakers can keep changing and growing their language. Language academies might not be particularly effective in ordering language to be the ideal ‘correct’ variant they desire, but they are necessary for keeping smaller languages alive which would doubtless suffer in an increasingly globalised world.

Image: Sofia Thuru

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