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Why Doesn’t English Have an Academy?

The question routinely becomes a subject of debate. Does English need an institution to safeguard it, or at least to regulate its health? Spanish has the Real Academia Española; French, L’Académie française; Arabic, the Academy of the Arabic Language; Mandarin Chinese, the National Languages Committee; Dutch, the Nederlandse Taalunie; German the Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung; Hebrew, the Academy of the Hebrew Language; Irish, the Foras na Gaeilge; Italian, the Accademia della Crusca; and so on. So why doesn’t English have its equivalent?

There have been repeated attempts to create an Academy of English, first in England, then in the United States. Intellectuals in England like Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift passionately debated the issue, and politicians on this side of the Atlantic, such as John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, suggested its function ought to be “to collect, interchange, and diffuse literary intelligence; to promote the purity and uniformity of the English language; to invite a correspondence with distinguished scholars in other countries speaking this language in connection with ourselves; to cultivate throughout our extensive territory a friendly intercourse among those who feel an interest in the progress of American literature, and, as far as may depend on well meant endeavors, to aid the general course of learning in the United States.”

In an age such as ours in which immigrants get blamed for not “becoming” Americans as fast, and as consistently, as their predecessors did, the impression prevails that immigrants are the ones not speaking the language as much as howling it. In England, in Canada, in Australia, and other Anglophone habitats, a similar if less vociferous complaint is heard today: immigrants ought to be blamed for the the general decline of civilization and along with it—of course—the standard of our beloved language. Yet it is immigrants who in the end often uphold the language with more pride. For they came from the outside and thus need to prove their true worth. The effect is similar to the convert to a new religion, who through the conversion process  becomes a more knowledgeable, more devout believer than those who were born into the religion. Ironically, it is immigrants like Mary Antin, Vladimir Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Frank McCourt, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Junot Diaz, to name only a few in the United States, who at once protect and expand the parameters of the language, making it more elastic, less constrained. A student of mine from Quito, Ecuador, often repeats to me that he prefers English, his adopted tongue, because “it chose me, Profe. So I must honor it.”

One might say that in the English-speaking world we have the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, and other such lexicological organizations. Don’t they serve the same role? Not quite, for these entities aren’t in the business of decreeing a constitution that establishes the parameters of what is permissible and what isn’t. The OED, for example, doesn’t prescribe what words we use; instead, it describes the way those words change across time and space.

Do we need one, then? Linguistic academies are intimately linked to nationalist ideologies. The Academy of the Hebrew Language came about as the State of Israel consolidated its status as a free country. Centuries earlier, the L’Académie française was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu. The Real Academia Española in Spain opened its doors in 1713 to compete with its neighbor, L’Académie française. It would be preposterous to suggest we are less nationalistic becomes we don’t have one. On the contrary, English is vitalized all the time because it is an imperial language: in reaching out, it absorbs influences from various environments. It is said that for every native English speaker today there are between three and four nonnatives. This equation signals the pressure felt by those who were born into speaking English. It also points to the buoyancy nurturing it everywhere on the globe.

My own response to the question is fugetaboutit. For better or worse, the English language is an expression of the democratic values we uphold. In other words, ours is a language of the people, by the people, for the people. The only ones capable of defending it are us. And, needless to say, we can also mess up with it. But that mess-up, in my opinion, is precisely what keeps it on its toes. When I immigrated to the United States, in the mid-eighties, bad in English was the antonym of good. Today bad and good are often synonyms. Is that bad? No, it’s good.

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