Who Is in Charge of Language?

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Who invented the English language, and to which mental institution was that person thereafter committed (or from which did the culprit escape)? More to the point, who regulates language, and why, as demonstrated in any one of countless exhibits of spoken and written discourse, are they doing such as poor job of it?

How do we, as a culture with a common predominant language, decide what is correct English, whether spoken or written? The corpus, or body, of our language is determined by a precarious consensus based on the contributions of prescriptivist linguists and descriptivist lexicographers, the traditions and innovations of professional writers, and the speaking and writing habits of the general populace. And it is the tension between all those participants in the process that makes pinning the language down such a challenge.

Dictionary editors are inclined to merely reflect popular usage, with often tentative judgments about which words are standard and which are unfortunate variants that they must duly record as being in use but cannot in good conscience recommend be used.

Meanwhile, other language experts write journal articles and deliver papers about what is and what should be — or what is and should be allowed. Writing guides range in tone from stuffy to breezy, from sober to silly, but many writers, including some who are paid to write, don’t bother consulting dictionaries, much less handbooks about proper grammar and usage (or journal articles or academic symposia).

People often write comments or e-mail messages to this site in which they rationalize some aberration of grammar, usage, style, spelling, or punctuation they prefer to the one they decry as the “correct” one. Meanwhile, many self-publishers, both online and in print, do more or less as they please when they write. In both cases, that is their prerogative.

But there is another realm, one admittedly nearly as chaotic, in which there is some effort to maintain standards for written expression. Some publications strive for more rigor than others, and some are more successful at achieving their goals than others, but most adhere to a published style guide such as The Chicago Manual of Style or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or The Associated Press Stylebook and/or an internal resource, and expect all contributors, from the most celebrated celebrity author to the newest neophyte, to do so.

Just as students are free to complete a school assignment in any manner they wish — with attendant consequences — writers may determine their own course in composition, but if they wish their work to be accepted for mainstream publication, they must go with the flow, however imperfect or illogical it may seem.

Technology enables us to reject this path with increasing ease and seek our own (though many self-publishers are still orthodox about orthography), but when I contemplate this course, two of my favorite bumper sticker bon mots come to mind: “Don’t believe everything you think” and “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

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6 thoughts on “Who Is in Charge of Language?”

  1. In Spanish we are spared these doubts and anxieties …:). There is an authority, the Royal Spanish Academy (Real Academia Española or RAE), on peninsular (or Castilian) Spanish – with whom we Latin American speakers may agree in total or in part or sometimes not at all – and several individual Language Academies (Academias de la Lengua) in each Latin American country or where large Spanish-speaking communities exist, such as the U.S. These academies are the authorities ‘in charge’ of the standard version of the language and very recently, only last year, they issued as the result of a coordinated effort among all of them, the RAE included, new spelling rules, some as recommendations, others as the new prescribed way. Nobody will chastise you for not following the new rules to the letter, but if you don’t, your style will definitely look “dated” and you will be considered as out of touch or not as up-to-date as you should.
    The above, just to contribute my two cents on how it’s done in other languages.

  2. I noticed you used “decry.” That isn’t still spelled “descry”? That got me thinking about other spelling changes over the last thirty years or so. When did “menues” become “menus”? Why don’t we double the final consonant when making them plural or adding some ending, like “jewellry”? How did happen? Was it decided by somebody to teach these newer spellings in school, so a generation grew up with the changes?

    Thanks for your always-interesting and helpful columns.

  3. Nan:

    Although decry and descry share an etymological origin (yes, the second syllable means “cry,” as in “call out”), the distinct words and meanings have existed for hundreds of years. And I don’t know that menues ever existed as a (or the) plural form of menu. Spelling changes are the result of any one of several factors, including a lack of orthographical standards, spelling reform, illiteracy, and random shifts in usage.

  4. My two pennies worth.
    One – language used should be clear enough to get the message across in case of an emergency.
    Two – language used should be colourful enough to transport the reader to an exciting or happier place.
    Finally, do modern gizmos like smartphones, improve or destroy children’s ability to communicate?

  5. Peter:

    “Bon mots” and “bons mots” are both correct. The tendency in English is to alter plural forms of foreign phrases to match the native form, and I did so here.

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