Written by Stephen Bathurst
When one is born an Englishman there are certain expectations that are often placed upon one…talking about the weather, keeping a stiff upper lip (sisu), moaning about whatever prat happens to be running the country. Of particular note, however, is an aversion to all things French. There is a lot of material to go on: jokes about food (horse meat and snails, anyone?); jokes about their military performance or lack thereof (white flags for every solider and tanks that can only go in reverse); the constant rebooting of the country (we’re onto the Fifth Republic now). But the one most relevant to this article is that of the L’Académie Française, known to the rest of us as L’French Language Police.
The Academy, a collection of crusty academics and snooty bureaucrats, sits pontificating in a lofty tower in the centre of Paris, dispensing dictats from on high on how the language and its grammar must be used! ‘At least 89.613% of any public broadcast must be in French!’ ‘Only 7.2 foreign words are allowed to be used on a billboard advert’. ‘It is illegal to call it a computer, it is an ordinateur’. Computer is a word of the perfidious Anglais and it is NOT ALLOWED!’ What power they have to actually enforce these rules (they try), and whether the world’s 270 million French speakers will pay any attention to them (they don’t), leads us to the purpose of this article – Who owns a language?
The Lingua Franca
Much to the annoyance of the French, after the Battle of Waterloo and the humbling of Napoleon English replaced French as the main international language. Today one of the great advantages of being a native English speaker is that no matter where you go in the world there is normally someone who understands you. However the experience of this British person is different to his American friends. In Africa, Asia and even in the USA itself I have been told I am not speaking English.
At first it does grate. “How dare you?! I AM English!” What they mean of course is they don’t understand my accent, or my word choices are different. It’s understandable, American movies and media abound, I am prone to superfluous floridity and expression; often they’ve simply had much less exposure to a British accent.
So who owns English, the current lingua franca? Is it the country that birthed it, that defined its rhythms and idiosyncrasies through stories and songs, that adapted and moulded it through generation after generation? Is it the economic and cultural superpower whose media and entertainment dominate the globe? Or is it the countless billions who speak it collectively, together, a language as a common tongue that builds bridges, businesses and community? Is it even possible to ‘own’ a language? I’m not sure it is. And if it is, it certainly isn’t the right of the native English to define its rules.
The Evolution of Language
This is Beowulf, written around the 10th Century:
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum, monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah, egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad…
Understand that? I don’t! That’s because it’s Old English.
Let’s jump a few hundred years to Chaucer, writing in the 1390s:
Herkneth, felawes, we thre been al ones; Lat ech of us holde up his hand til oother, And ech of us bicomen otheres brother. And we wol sleen this false traytour deeth.
I can understand that but it is a push, even for a native.
Jump again, Shakespeare in 1623:
…Then if thou hast A heart of wreak in thee, that wilt revenge Thine own particular wrongs and stop those maims Of shame seen through thy country, speed thee straight And make my misery serve thy turn. So use it That my revengeful services may prove As benefits to thee, for I will fight Against my cankered country with the spleen Of all the under under fiends.
I get it, but I’m a theatre actor, I’m trained to get it and even I still have to think hard sometimes. The average Brit would struggle.
We see above how English has evolved, it’s rules broken and remade. Shakespeare was famous for just making up new words when he couldn’t find a suitable existing one.
The Nature of Control
The point of this is to show how language is organic, changing over time, adapting by circumstance, affected by events. You can’t control it or manage it. I find this even within my own 31 years of speaking. When I was a boy things were nice and simple, ‘good’ meant good and ‘bad’ meant bad. Then in my teenage years everything changed. Suddenly if something was described as ‘bad’ it could mean both good or bad.
“That’s sick!”, a refrain often heard when frequenting the youth. Sick means vomit, vomit is disgusting. But now apparently sick also means ‘good’.
“This slaps”, a common refrain among those of a Yankee persuasion. A slap is a bad thing but now also means good?
“This restaurant is shit!” – Bad.
“This restaurant is the shit!” – Good. Confused? You’re not alone. I hate it. It’s illogical and stupid. But trying to control it is like fighting the tide. It can’t be done. Like the Apostle Paul, I’d rather speak five words that can be understood by others than a thousand that can’t. Language is a tool, a means to an end, that of communication.
The Limited Arm of the Law
Returning to French, it too is a global language, spoken as far afield as Tahiti, Cameroon and Quebec, cultures that have history with France but have been respectively autonomous, independent or abandoned from the Metropole long enough for language and culture to distinctly diverge. If, for example, you’re a young, tech-savvy YouTuber from a completely different continent who likes gaming on Twitch, why would you listen when some old buffer poncing around in pantaloons (the Académie uniform…) orders that you can’t be called a streamer and must instead label yourself as a ‘joueur-animateur en direct’?
The answer is you don’t, you completely ignore them, as happened in 2022 when L’Académie spaffed out that last nonsense.
“But, wait!” you cry. “What of the need to protect a language, keep alive a tongue, bequeath to the next generation, steward a culture, a tradition, its stories and songs?”
Well, that’s a very valid argument, a worthy one too, one we sadly don’t have the space to cover here. So let us discuss next time in Part 2 of Adventures of the Language Police.
Stephen Bathurst is an actor, playwright and poet currently pontificating in Pirkkala. He is very pleased to have finally accomplished his mission of sourcing proper British sausages in Finland. Custard is sadly yet to be found. Follow him at strangersandexiles.net