Chapter and Verse, Newswordy

The Achadamie Anglais? NO thank you!

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Some of my students are often surprised when around each January I introduce them to a string of new words that have been introduced into the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Surprised at the speed at which new words are added and in some cases surprise at the sheer banality of some of the words.

Last January, for example, saw the addition of mansplaining and the year before the word BREXIT made it onto those hallowed pages. Much to the relief of many a politician who would have been rendered dumb without such a word in their vocabulary - although come to think of it, it is not the presence of the 'B' word that is making them dumb...

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It is, however, this devil may care attitude, with the English Langauge which makes mastery such a problem. Today, it is accepted, but in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, it was not. Such illustrious names at Daniel Defoe (the author of Robinson Crusoe) and Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver's Travels) called for an academy to oversee and regulate the language based upon the model introduced in France by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635. Even the Americans got in on the act in 1806 when the American Congres considered a bill to introduce a National Acadamy. All attempts failed.

So, because there are no official guardians of the language it begs the question where do some of the rules come from? That sentence being a classic example since I distinctly remember as a student being told that sentences must never end with a preposition. And, who decided for example that you should never begin a sentence with a conjunction?

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It turns out that Robert Lowth, an 18th Century clergyman and amateur grammarian wrote a book called A Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762. The book which outlawed such heresy, enjoyed a very long and influential life right up until Martin Baker took his English Exam in 1976. What's more, there are numerous other "absolutely never" - type rules created through time at the whim of some so-called linguistic expert.

The day will happen whether or not you get up.

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American Poet

There are undoubtedly virtues in the fact that English is a fluid and evolving language that changes in response to common usage rather than at the dictate of a committee. And (I'm starting with a conjunction again) let's be honest, trying to arrest linguistic change is a futile, hopeless and arrogant undertaking.

So, for me, the most important consideration is that of John Ciardi. He was an American Poet perhaps most famous for his quote - The day will happen whether or not you get up. However, on the subject of linguistic change, he observed that resistance to change, in the end, prove futile, but at least it tests the changes and makes them prove their worth.

Additional Material

Additional material for this article from: Mother Tongue - Bill Bryson Penguin B