language change and slang linguistics and lexicography

l’Academie Anglaise

The Times recently carried a report on the Academy of English, an organization set up by the Queen’s English Society to “protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation.”

Anyone who’s now cowering behind the sofa in fear and trembling of these text-speak horrors can safely come out and calm down by reading David Crystal’s Txtng: The Gr8 Db8, or reading his article here on the topic.

The extraordinary thing about this academy is that it is modelled (very loosely) on the Académie Française (and other European guardians of language purity). Yet history has demonstrated that such academies are largely powerless in the face of the real owners of the language – the users.

To take just one example: the French Academy sees the English word email as an unwelcome intruder, and decreed in June 2003 that the official French word is courriel. The decree was published in the Journal officiel, and says that e-mail is a foreign equivalent, and that the term courriel abolishes and replaces the (previously official) term courrier électronique.

Call me an old cynic if you like, but I thought I’d turn to Google to see what’s happening out there on the Internet. If you ask for courriel or courriels on .fr domains, you’ll find 9.46 million occurrences. However, a search for email or emails reveals 21.5 million occurrences, so two out of three French people who refer to email on the Internet seem to be ignoring the Académie and opting for the English (or should that be multinational?) email.

Back to the Académie Anglaise: they are quoted as saying that the other language academies “do not stop the language from changing over the years, but they do provide a measure of linguistic discipline and try to retain valid and useful new terms, while rejecting passing fads.”

Providing a measure of linguistic discipline is one thing, but rejecting passing fads? By definition, passing fads are rejected by the people who matter most – the users. Fads don’t pass because an academy decrees that they are passing fads; they pass because users of the language stop using them of their own accord.

The message, it seems to me, is fairly clear. Official bodies cannot dictate the way a language is used – language follows the will of the people who use it. And rather than look up to a self-appointed academy autocratically dictating the rights and wrongs of language use, we should look within our language communities to our teachers, lexicographers, and materials writers to provide descriptions that recognize and describe the range of the language and that allow for different registers in different contexts. The key to language use is appropriacy for a situation, not blanket decrees that outlaw words or structures at a stroke.

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Stephen Bullon


  • It’s such a stunningly stupid idea that it could only come from an organisation as reactionary as the Queen’s English Society. Even worse than the QES’s own press release (and embarrassing interview on PM the other day) is a piece in yesterday’s Telegraph which trots out all the prescriptive myths of educational collapse, texting = work of Satan, illiterate teachers, blah blah and furthermore blah.

    The writer of Bad Linguistics has put together a good response to the Telegraph article here and we’ve collected some links and comments together here .

    Language is alive and changing: live with it!

  • Nice greetings from currently but rather exeptionally sunny Prague.
    Thanks for the novely text about the Academy of English.
    I agree with the concept of giving the native (or non-native) users of the language the freedom to decide what words and phrases to use in their speech or even writing. Centralizing the authority into an institution is usually wrong.
    Our formal country Austria collapsed and one of the contributing reasons was the language problem: Hungarians and Czech and other language minorities were not very happy to use German in all official dealings and the German speakers almost completely refused to learn at least a bit of the other tongues. This situation seems to appear in all big countries. At the moment quite strongly in Spain and to some degree in the UK.
    It is not really polite to tell other people how to speak unless they ask you to be the teacher.

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