French has the Académie française, Spanish has the Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, but English has never had a central authority on the language. The anarchy of our English language is one of her charms, in my opinion. Although English doesn’t have any recognized central authority, we do have standards established by convention, recognized style guides, etc.
English is a mutt, so to speak. She has her origins in the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons who were later conquered by the French Normans which had a revolutionary effect on the language making English a hybrid Germanic and Romance language. Thus we plenty of synonyms and near-synonyms like kingly and royal, rise and mount, ask and question, the former being Germanic and the latter being Latinate.
English orthography, particularly our spelling, is very inconsistent. We have plenty of words with archaic spellings, such as knight, which now has a silent “k” but originally did not. However we still cling to the old spelling.
To illustrate the absurdity of English spelling, George Bernard Shaw devised an alternate spelling for the word fish spelled ghoti. That’s right, ghoti is pronounced ”fish” /ˈfɪʃ/. Take the gh from tough for the /f/ sound, the o from women for the /ɪ/ “i” sound and the ti from nation for the /ʃ/ “sh” sound and you get ghoti, “fish.” Shaw also came up with this very clever spelling for “potato” /poʊˈteɪtoʊ/, ghoughpteighbteau. Try and figure that one out. Perhaps the only truly successful attempt at spelling reform came about by Noah Webster who standardized the American English language. Thus we have uniquely American spellings such as color not colour or center not centre. The inconsistency is not limited to spelling, but also to grammar and sytax.
Currently there is an attempt by the Queen’s English Society to create an Academy of English modeled on the Académie Française. Gerald Warner opining at The Telegraph supports this effort.
Globalisation has meant that the predominance of English in computerised societies is making it more vulnerable to abuse than any other tongue. The advent of texting has had a disastrous effect on literacy and the mass media are complicit in bastardisation of language. Then there is the omnipresent, nightmarish gibberish of management jargon. The worst problem, however, is the collapse of literacy within our education system – the forum that should have been the sturdiest bastion of correct practice.
Instead, laissez-faire attitudes towards spelling, grammar and syntax, encouraged by trendy educationalists, have created a situation in which illiterate pupils have now been joined by a generation of largely illiterate teachers. The “inclusive” mania to embrace the lowest common denominator has left the language of Shakespeare fighting for survival. The universal misuse of apostrophes recently provoked the writing of a best-selling book; its success suggests there is still a desire among the bulk of the population to understand and employ correct usage, but abuses are proliferating.
The inarticulacy of young people’s speech is not something that will necessarily correct itself with maturity, as optimists rashly assume: where there is no understanding of the basic structures of our language, self-improvement can only be a hit-or-miss effort.
Every literate individual has his own pet aversion. I would single out, in particular, the current pandemic misuse of the subjunctive, rampant in media reports. “Gordon Brown may have won the general election if he had had more convincing policies” suggests that there remains some doubt on the subject, that it could yet transpire that Brown had won the election: “Gordon Brown might have won the general election…” is obviously the correct version, which should come automatically to any educated person.
Aggravating the current crisis is state-sponsored illiteracy, with central and local government promoting politically correct Newspeak, such as “chair” for chairman, and innumerable hideous neologisms such as “spokesperson”, which are additionally offensive in patronisingly attributing infantile insecurity to women. We live in an age of aggressive Philistinism. Modern “art” is a sick joke, imposed on the public in the absence of courageous opponents denouncing the Emperor’s new clothes; it is no coincidence that its iconic artefact was a urinal exhibited in 1917, as the old world that had produced so many glories of true art was dissolving.
In this climate of anti-aestheticism it is unsurprising that even an attempt to preserve the beauty and coherence of the English language should meet with opposition by those who claim that it needs to “evolve” unimpeded. There is nothing wrong with a language evolving – English has always done so; but what is happening now is not evolution but nihilism. It must be resisted and the Queen’s English Society is to be congratulated on its initiative. All champions of literacy will wish the society success in establishing a much-needed Academy of English.