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The Guardians of Language
August 21, 2014 - By: - In: Language - Comments Off on The Guardians of Language

I recently got into a discussion about a grammar point that confounds both native speakers and non-native speakers alike. Ideas were put forth. Reasons were given. Google was consulted. Forums were read. Grammar sites were scoured.

Language is such an interesting thing. It lives. It breathes. It changes. Yet it still has many concrete rules. But who upholds these rules today? Who are the guardians of language?

Language Academies

Around the world there are a number of formal bodies (referred to as language academies) that serve as the guardians of language. They were created and tasked with standardizing and regulating the use of a particular language. Examples include the Royal Spanish Academy, French Academy, Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo and Commission on the Filipino Language. Most language academies are government institutions funded by the countries where that language is spoken.

For example, the French Academy (L’Académie française) was created in 1635 by King Louis XIII’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu. With few exceptions, such as the French Revolution, the French Academy has been a venerable part of the French government; nowadays the President of France is named as the protector of the Academy. The French Academy’s dictionary officially governs use of the French language, setting the standard across France. However, the French Academy’s recommendations aren’t laws; tourists will be glad to note that no one goes to jail for speaking French badly.

Dictionaries and Style Guides

Not every language has a formal language academy though. Notably, the English language has no one arbiter of taste. As a result, prominent dictionaries and style guides tend to set the standards in the English-speaking world. Traditionally, the Oxford English Dictionary has set the standard for English language usage in the United Kingdom. In the United States, however, the unofficial standards are less decentralized. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary as well as the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style and The MLA Style Manual all hold sway over what is considered “good English usage” in the United States. In more recent years, however, the Internet and notably Google have also been used as a quick, informal standards check.

What do you think? To write and speak well in our own languages, do we need language academies? Do we need styles guides? Or do we just need Google?

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