What are the most popular sports in Britain? Football? Rugby? Cricket?
One of these for sure. But the list of aspiring candidates would be incomplete without another deserving entry: mocking the French Academy (l’Académie Française).
The Academy was founded by Cardinal Richelieu “to labour with all the care and diligence possible, to give exact rules to our language, to render it capable of treating the arts and sciences”.
In other words, its function was, and to this day remains, to police the French language and its use. I’ll let the French decide how successful this mission has been. My guess is that most of them would judge it largely a failure, citing in support all the rapidly proliferating affronts, such as a profusion of Anglicisms.
However, they don’t know, and neither does anyone else, how much worse things could be without the Academy. That’s like saying that, for all the medical advances, a patient still died. Yes, but without such advances he could have died much earlier.
One way or the other, there’s something about the idea of policing language that goes against the grain of the anti-dirigiste British spirit. Britons don’t want some toffs and eggheads to sit in judgement and pronounce verdicts on how they should speak.
A language, they often say, is a living organism and must develop naturally. And English has done pretty well in that department, thank you very much. That’s why it has ousted French as the world’s lingua franca.
While the general thrust of such arguments rings true, one could legitimately quibble over some details. First, not all living organisms can survive if left to their own devices.
For example, my living organism takes 12 tablets every day and hasn’t been without such boosts to nature since I was 10. Allowed to develop unaided, this living organism would have died decades ago, thereby sparing you this constant stream of vituperation.
Also, the imperialist nature of the English language may contribute to its undoing. The French, who are often quite petty about their language pushed down to a secondary status, ought to look at the history of every lingua franca, such as Latin, and thank their lucky étoiles.
For, like all living organisms, a language can best survive in its native habitat. When it’s used universally, it’s reduced to a patois that sucks all living juices out of it. What remains is the bare bones of primitive communications, mostly involved in buying and selling. Eventually, this affects the language even as it’s used at home, and the more global the communications, the more noticeable this tendency.
Then, the function of police in a civilised country isn’t to regulate every aspect of behaviour but only to stop its worst manifestations. Again, I don’t know how French would have fared without the Academy’s enforcement of linguistic laws, but for one reason or another the French mangle their grammar less than the British do. This though French grammar is much more complex.
A regulatory body can’t dictate how people should speak, but it certainly can dictate how language is taught at school, and possibly also the contents of style manuals used in various media. The general rule in this field, as in most others, is that freedom is wonderful, but it shouldn’t be allowed to turn into anarchy.
With all these provisos, I agree that language shouldn’t be legislated. A language must be allowed to develop freely without being constrained by any artificial tethers.
Except that English, French and all other Western European languages are indeed being legislated – and by groups considerably less erudite and more toxic than l’Académie Française. These are roaming gangs of illiterate woke demagogues out to castrate all languages in the name of equality, mostly of the ‘gender’ sort.
As a staunch champion of the same laws for all, I insist that we must decide: if English is to be immune to outside pressures, it should be immune to all of them. However, if some people are allowed to impose regulatory constraints, then surely another group ought to be able to resist them. Sanity must have a chance to fight back.
Again, France leads the way, although acting at the point are political, rather than linguistic, legislators. A group of MPs have started a campaign against ‘gender-inclusive’ nouns, correctly warning that at risk here is the whole language, not just the odd masculine word.
Gender-neutral words, argue the MPs, “create a gap between the spoken and written language. It is therefore the whole of French linguistic heritage which risks disappearing… Do the rules of grammar no longer exist?”
Hear, hear. One only wishes that this effort be spearheaded by l’Académie, whose founding remit is precisely to protect French from perverse changes. But at least the effort is under way.
Rather than mocking the French in general, and l’Académie in particular, we should create a similar English body to act not as a language dictator, but as a bulwark against the savage ideological attacks jeopardising the continuing health of what, at the risk of infuriating my French friends, I consider the world’s greatest language.
Who would be qualified to serve on such a panel? I’d suggest writers, journalists and academics who possess impeccable credentials as English stylists, and whose shoulders bear no ‘progressive’ chips. Here I proceed from logic, not my own political convictions.
Such a body would be performing a conservative function, with conservation as its brief. And the dictionary defines that word as “planned management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction or neglect”. And, tautologically speaking, conservation is best left to conservatives.
Conservation, as for that matter political conservatism, opposes only harmful change, not change tout court. And what can harm a language more than the ugly contortions into which English is being forced by the modern equivalents of the sans-culottes pretending to be philosophes? Up the Academy, I say.