To hear this episode or read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/fix-i
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, hold language in my arms and say “There there, it’s alright,” whilst secretly crossing my fingers behind language’s back.
Coming up in today’s show: a crushing blow for pedants.
But first, here’s a little light word history sponsored by Hover.com. I received the following email from Rose:
I am 5.
We are learning computers.
Why is it called 'LOG IN' at the start?
Firstly, Rose, congratulations upon being so competent at emails at such a young age. Now strap in, because this explanation sounds like a lie, but apparently really isn’t.
The first known written example of ‘log in’ in the computer sense is from 1963, when computing was in its infancy. But in the sense of entering information, log had already been in use for nearly 300 years, stemming from sailors logging information into a ship’s log book.
Why that book was called a log was because of the way they ascertained the ship’s speed. They’d throw a log overboard, attached to a long line of rope with knots tied along it. As the ship moved away, the log would stay floating roughly in the same place, but they’d let the rope unspool for a fixed amount of time. By counting the knots that ran overboard, they’d measure the distance travelled, divide it by the time, and thus calculate the speed, which they then logged in the log book. Hence also why the unit of measurement for ships’ speed is the knot.
There’s the history of log in, sponsored by Hover.com. If you need web domains, they can get you sorted it out in five minutes flat. Enter the terms you want in your URL and you’ll get the full list of what’s available, with all the hundreds of possible suffixes - from the normal ones like .com, to countries, to more creative options. I’m looking for a domain to make a website for my dad. ZackZaltzman.pun doesn’t seem to be available, yet. So maybe I should get him zackzaltzman.xxx just to wind him up. Or .rodeo, just in case he fancies a career change.
Anyway, you can get ten per cent off your first purchase with Hover if you enter the promo code ALLUSIONIST.
On with the show.
HZ: Most of the questions I get asked about the English language can be boiled down to this: why is English such an idiosyncratic mess? And why has nobody tried to sort it out?
Well, some people did kind of try. For hundreds of years, English had been a swirling concoction full of Latin, German and French thanks to all the invasions of Britain, plus words English had nicked from other languages, all refusing to behave regularly or obey rules consistently, and riddled with silent Gs.
300 or so years ago, some decided they had HAD ENOUGH. Even though they'd had a couple of hundred years to get used to it, they were still reeling from the aftershock of the Renaissance.
TG: It’s a period with a large number of broad-ranging changes in many domains;
HZ: that's Thomas Godard, who I interrupted finishing off his phd in the history of linguistic ideas.
TG: and the language all of a sudden evolves very rapidly. There are a large number of words borrowed from French, and the ancient languages, Latin and Greek; there’s also, with the advent of printing, the standardization of spelling - the printers had to agree how to spell a word. So there’s a general feeling around C17 there’s too much uncertainty about the language: too many competing forms, too many competing spellings, too many competing structures in the language. And there is a need to ‘ascertain’ - what Swift calls it in his Proposal - the language, to agree on its correct form.
HZ: Jonathan Swift is better known for A Modest Proposal, one of the most famous satires in English, in which he suggested Irish paupers might improve their finances by selling their children to the rich to eat. There was significantly less comedy cannibalism in his 1712 Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, but did echo the sentiment of several of his fellow authors and grammarians: appoint an official body of experts to reform and regulate the English language, along the lines of what the French language already had, the Academie Francaise.
LW: The Academie Francaise was formed 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, a very important person politically.
HZ: Dr Liv Walsh is an expert in linguistic purism.
LW: and its aim was to keep French pure. There was this idea in C17 that French had reached this state of perfection and it needed to be kept in this state. Any changes were seen as very negative, because it was seen as so perfect. They had the very overt aim of keeping the language pure, and cleaning it of the dirt in the mouths of commoners, the kind of language used.
HZ: Academie Francaise was based on the world’s first language academy, founded in 1583, the Italian Academy, known as the Accademia della Crusca, which translates as the Academy of bran. As in bran. Branflakes bran.
LW: There’re loads of metaphors about purism: “Weeds choking the language, we have to pull them off”, a “disease attacking the language” or contaminating the language. I think the idea of ‘bran’ is the wheat will be separated from the bran, so you’ll want to keep it pure.
HZ: Academie Francaise has 40 members, known as the Immortels, because once you were a member, you were a member until death. It’s still going today, though it hasn’t always had a smooth ride.
LW: It would have been suppressed during French Revolution, but would have come back into being immediately afterwards, because one of the important ideas of the Revolution was that everybody should speak a common language and that language should be French, because at the time of the Revolution, so many people in France spoke different languages, and it was so difficult to envisage a unified nation without a single language.
To be honest, in C17 there was a huge amount of population in what we now consider France who didn’t speak French at all, spoke regional languages. Standard French we know today spread from a dialect called Francienne, which was centred around Paris, and for social and economic reasons that’s the dialect that eventually spread across France. But until early C20, a large proportion of people in France wouldn’t have spoken what we know as standard French now, but a dialect.
HZ: So really the Academie Francaise was catering to a small minority of French-speakers, who were likely to be in a high bracket of class, education and wealth. In which case, how do you compel a whole country to get in line and speak the language you’ve decided is the right one?
LW: It didn’t happen all at once; it wasn’t like the Revolution happened and suddenly everyone was speaking French. But there were a number of political and economic and social factors that eventually led to French becoming widespread; but it would have taken a good century or more after the Rev for that to actually happen. One really important thing was the introduction of free education. It began quite early on, but they didn’t introduce really free, widespread education till 1880s. Once children started going to school like that, they only spoke standard French, and were punished for speaking local dialect.
Interesting the way they punished them: you’d be given something to hold if you were caught speaking dialect. If someone else did, you handed it onto them; the child left holding the object at the end of the day got a thrashing. So they were quite strict about not using your local language in schools.
HZ: Once you’ve got a whole generation speaking in a certain way, it doesn’t take long for the other ways to start to die. So how does the academie Francaise keep itself busy now? It works on new editions of the dictionary; it gives out prizes; it steps into linguistic debates about such matters as spelling reform, or the preservation of gendered job titles; and recently it has had the right to approve or veto the efforts of the Terminology Commissions, which were set up in the 1970s in several ministries to create replacements for terms which have crept into French from English. English has poached many terms from French, for example joie de vivre and je ne sais quoi - because English didn’t have its own expressions for those concepts. Which is one reason borrowing words from other languages is an extremely common linguistic process, so French might be fighting a losing battle.
LW: The English term will enter the language, especially in eg technology, as the tech’s coming from an English-speaking country and the term comes with it, and that’s the word they use; by the Terminology Commissions get around to creating a replacement, often the English term is in such widespread usage, it’d be very difficult to get the French term to take over.
HZ: In contrast, the movement to fix the English language was quite keen to make it more like a foreign language: Latin, which they thought was more noble and classier all round.
TG: They wanted to give the English language the same respectability in religious use, religious practice, scholarly practice. Therefore they thought proper grammar was Latin grammar, and the best way to speak English was to speak the way Latin was written.
HZ: But English is not Latin. It behaves differently to Latin. Nonetheless, some of the artificial rules they tried to impose upon the language continue to stink the place out.
TG: The split infinitive is one of those silly rules that’s still brought up in usage. In Latin, you could not split an infinitive: it was all one word, not like English composed of a particle and a verbal base. So it’s impossible in Latin to split an infinitive; therefore they thought English should follow the same order, and the two should not be separated in English as well.
HZ: Listeners, I urge you to boldly split infinitives where no infinitive has been split before. I’m in favour of linguistic rules insofar as they aid understanding and are logical; but not when they’re arbitrary, and not even useful.
I think it’s difficult to strike a happy balance between preserving a language, so certain aspects of culture and heritage aren’t completely lost, and accepting that it’s going to evolve according to how people use it. And there’s not much you can do about that. France.
LW: French speakers, the person on street just doesn’t care; they’re not that interested, they think it’s fine to use Anglicisms, if they’re in common use and get the point. So there’s a real mismatch between what they’re doing at official level and grassroots.
A lot of reaction to Anglicisms is a mask for a broader cultural fear that France is being sidelined, and other countries, esp US, are overtaking them on global stage. Which is true. A lot of fears of French language being invaded by English = fears of France losing its role in the world.
HZ: Like penis anxiety but over its place in the world.
HZ: At least the Academie appears to be doing a pretty good job of marketing.
LW: The influence of the Academie is more on the imagination of speakers, rather than any tangible influence on the language itself. Really big influence on the idea of standard French, the idea speakers of French have and that we as outsiders have as well, of French being a very erudite, sophisticated language. They’ve had an influence on how French is imagined by French-speakers, but not on how people actually speak French in reality. You have to question the point of going to that effort if you’re not getting the terms out to the people, if your aim is to replace the English terms. You can't tell people how they should speak.
HZ: And, as it turned out, they never even tried to tell English people how they officially should speak. The English Academy never was established.
TG: There is a change of mood around English scholars; everything that is French gets rejected around C18. It’s a time of wars against the French, military and commercial wars; and the anti-Gallic sentiment increases amongst the scholars of the time. In fact, the opposite happens. After 1715 there is a rejection of the idea of having an arbitrary, absolute authority deciding the correct way of speaking and writing English. The language changes; the language will change even if you try to fix it, and this is what they realised in the C18.
HZ: A prime example of this was Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, monumental in the history of English as it was the first dictionary to attempt to comprehensively catalogue the language. A group of booksellers commissioned Johnson to write it, and starting off the project in 1846, he had grand plans.
TG: If you look at Johnson’s plan for a dictionary, he is full of ambition; he plans to fix the language for eternity, set down the rules that will remain the rules for everyone. In the same way Latin was fixed because it was a dead language. But when the dictionary came out 10 years later, his discourse has changed completely, and he has acknowledged that the language will change, will evolve, and there’s nothing you can do about it because it’s for the better. New needs arise, new realities and concepts need to be described. The more you try to fix the language, the more it will resist, until it is dead.
To go back to C18 and Johnson’s dictionary in particular is an experience of humility, and you see how those rules which we now hold up as sacred were actually very arbitrary and happened for completely random reasons, and it makes you feel a lot more relaxed about your own language, when you read how they came about. You don’t have to feel so anxious about misspelling something, or ending a sentence with a preposition, or using ‘whom’ rather than ‘who’. So you have to think of the language as living, and it’s living through the speakers, and through the speakers’ own idiosyncrasies.
LW: Languages change. They evolve. Creating an academy isn’t going to stop that from happening.
TG: In a way, the more standardized the language becomes, the more barren it becomes.
HZ: But attempts to fix English are still very much alive, as you’ll discover in the next episode of the Allusionist.
This episode was sponsored by F-Secure. If you’re eager to maintain your online privacy, not be tracked or have your data salivated over, the F-Secure Free-dome VPN gives you your own private lane on the internet. It’s available for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android, and it is a lot easier than building your own Faraday cage. You can get it free for a month at fsecure.com/allusionist.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks a lot to Thomas Godard, Liv Walsh, Rachele De Felice, and Martin Austwick, who makes the music for the show.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX. As is Fugitive Waves by the magnificent Kitchen Sisters. They’ve just put out a new episode, King’s Candy, marking the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I don’t know any other show that could combine Hurricane Katrina, confectionary, and prison reform, let alone with such aplomb. Visit radiotopia.fm to hear the Kitchen Sisters, and the rest of the greatest shows on earth.
Radiotopia is possible thanks to the support of you staunch listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
toxophilite, noun, a student or lover of archery, adjective, of or relating to archers and archery.
Try using it in an email today.
You can email me via theallusionist.org, Facebook or tweet at allusionistshow, but I’ve noticed that a lot of you who’ve done that before have been very self-flagellating about your grammar. Don’t be - as long as I can understand you, I don’t really mind. I’m a pedant in recovery. Unless you use ‘literally’ to mean the opposite of itself.
No, let it go, Helen. It’s too late. That’s what the people want literally to mean.
But they’ve got other words for emphasis!
Just accept it. Semantic shift is unavoidable.
[howl of pain]