Lashing the Wind

A bunch of people claiming to ‘have a special insight into the workings of the English language’, and rather grandly calling themselves ‘The Academy Board’, run a website called, equally grandly, The Academy of Contemporary English. They aspire to create something on the lines of the French Academy, but as far as I can tell their efforts so far have amounted to no more than their website. They are not the first to have tried, in the words of one of their rather more distinguished predecessors, Jonathan Swift, ‘to fix the language’. Previous attempts have happily failed to do any such thing, for as Samuel Johnson said,

‘With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.’

On their first page they make a botched attempt at explaining how human communication, in the form of language, differs from communication between other animals. The best they can do is to tell us that ‘we humans are the only animals capable of shaping the sounds by forcing air from the lungs through a set of vocal chords and then moulding them with our throats, tongues, teeth and lips.’ That itself is probably debatable, but they miss the crucial point that human language is distinguished primarily not by this, but by such features as duality of patterning, creativity and displacement. This they could have easily discovered by reading the opening chapters of an introductory book on linguistics.

The website is shot through with so many inaccuracies and unsupported claims that it’s hard to know where to begin to counter them. I’ll select a few, more or less at random, to give the flavour.

First off, of course, there is the perpetual claim of those who know little about how language works that ‘the language has been deteriorating at an ever-accelerating pace for many years now.’ The only justification they give for this is that contemporary English has some features they happen not to like. Do they really believe they are the first to have said this? Do they have any evidence to show that it is likely to be any truer now than it has been in the past?

Then they have to have a go at the descriptivist / prescriptivist debate. ‘The Prescriptivists,’ they tell us, ‘prescribe how the language should be used. They insist on the application of certain time-proven rules of usage that have developed over the ages and have been found to give the language form and style.’ They don’t tell us who these fine people are, or what their qualifications might be, but I suspect they have themselves in mind. ‘Descriptivists,’ on the other hand, ‘consider to be correct anything that is said or written.’ Oh? A little evidence would be particularly welcome here. If they mean linguists, nothing could be further from the truth. Let me quote from David Crystal’s blog on the matter:

‘So, for the record, once again, and hopefully for the last time: I have never said that “anything goes” when it comes to language. Read my lips. I have never said that “anything goes” when it comes to language. Nor do I know of any linguist who has said such a thing. The whole point of sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and the other branches of linguistics which study language in use is actually to show that “anything does not go”. The only people who use the phrase “anything goes” are prescriptivists desperately trying to justify their prejudices.’

At least one of their statements is factually wrong. They tell us that,

‘Portmanteau words are words, expressions, etc. consisting of a blend in meaning of two other words, also known as “Janus words”, words having a dual function or purpose so that when they are used, it is not clear which of those meanings is intended.  They should be replaced by separate words for each meaning. “Sanction” is one such word.’

No, portmanteau words don’t consist simply of a blend of meaning, but of a blend of form. For example, ‘motel’ is a blend of the first element of ‘motor’ and the second element of ‘hotel’, giving us a word which, far from having ‘a dual function’ has only one: to describe a hotel designed to be used by motorists. What they mean by saying ‘”Sanction” is one such word’ I have no idea.

Here are some of the things these busybodies want to prescribe for us, although ‘proscribe’ might be the more appropriate word.

They don’t want us to say ‘provide to’, as in ‘The government provides guns to all the soldiers.’ This construction, they, say, ‘comes from the murky depths of ignorance. The verb “provide” does not and cannot be used with “to”.’ Had they taken the trouble to consult the world’s greatest source of information on English words, the Oxford English Dictionary, they would have read of ‘provide’, that it is ‘freq.[ently] with “for”, “to”, indicating the beneficiary’. In support, there is this 1942 citation from Lord Alanbrooke’s Diary: ‘He is trying to stop deliveries of aircraft to us in order to provide sufficient aircraft to USA pilots!’

Then, oh dear, they wring their hands over what is to follow ‘different’. ‘The ONLY CORRECT FORM,’ they scream at us, IS DIFFERENT FROM.’ Got that? Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Daniel Defoe, Oliver Goldsmith, Fanny Burney, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Thomas De Quincy, Thomas Carlyle, and William Thackeray, had all got it wrong in using ‘different than’. Our academicians know better.

Now, consider this conversation.

‘Which one do you prefer? The red one or the blue one?’

‘I prefer the red one.’

OK? Not according to our academicians. They want us to say ‘I prefer this.’ Remember that, if you ever have the misfortune to come across an academician.

This might all be rather serious if they were able to get their points across convincingly. Fortunately for those of us who delight in the English language they fall at the first hurdle. They do not understand that language is more than the words used, whether in speech or in writing. Consequently, their website has all the appeal of congealed gravy. Few, I would guess, will read it, and fewer still will take any notice of what they say, and for that, at least, we should be thankful.

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