THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 672, May 27, 2012
"Choose to be free"
Who Will Build the Syntax?
Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
Who is in charge of the English language? There is an academy of the Arabic language. There is a state language and letters committee for the Mandarin Chinese language in the People's Republic of China; Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia each has its own language academy. There is a Danish language board. The French Academy is in charge of the French language. There is a council for German orthography. Portuguese, Spanish, and about ninety other languages have language regulators. Russian had an academy until 1841, which went away, presumably in some austerity measure, but was resurrected in 1944.
The "dead" language of Latin has three regulatory agencies, one from the Holy See and one each for botany and zoology. Five manufactured languages, Esperanto, Ido, Klingon, Lojban, and Talossan, each have their own language groups. In all, over a hundred different groups are involved in regulating a particular language.
English, on the other hand, is unregulated. Consult the Oxford dictionary and you'll find that the scholars there are reporting on usage and spelling, reporting new words as they crop up, but they are not imposing a standard. They cannot impose a standard, they have no authority. As a result, English has an enormous vocabulary of words. One of the amusing (to some, who keep a sense of humour about to avoid suicidal depression) shifts in definition has made "bi-annual" mean both twice yearly and once every two years, even though the perfectly useful word "semi-annual" was already available. Usage can be tricky that way.
Really, who will build the syntax of this great language, if there is no government? Is it a great language? Well, yes, actually.
The origins of English date back into the 5th Century, so roughly fifteen hundred years. English is spoken by 380 million native speakers, about 250 million as a second language, up to 1.8 billion worldwide as a primary or secondary language, and is an "official" language of 54 countries, 27 non-sovereign entities, and ten international bodies. It one of the official languages of the United Nations and one of the official languages of the European Union, for examples. It is a required language for aircraft pilots worldwide and a leading language in science. As early as 1997, the Science Citation Index reported that 95% of its citations were in English even though over half of them came from non-English-speaking countries.
How did it get this widespread without being regulated? Mostly through colonial and imperial ambitions. Britain spread the English language in eastern Africa, India, and North America. The American empire spread English to the Philippines.
How did it last this long without a regulatory body? Well, when the Normans conquered England in AD 1066, they didn't bother with English. The conquerors spoke a dialect of French. Up to the late 18th Century, scholars worldwide were expected to know Latin and ancient Greek and be able to converse in those languages. Up until the end of the Napoleonic wars, and a little after, diplomats frequently used the French language as a common tonguethus the phrase lingua franca: "A medium of communication among peoples of different languages."
English did attract some early attention in the late Medieval period when some scholars, especially scientifically oriented ones, were looking for a language that didn't have the fixed rules of Latin. Apparently, having no rulers governing the language was desirable to some who wanted to open up new avenues of inquiry.
It turns out that English, as a language, is just fine, without any government. Even those style manuals you were forced to buy in college or use in high school aren't anything official. In fact, the publishers deliberately change the styles required for footnotes simply to force everyone to buy a new style manual every few years. You should probably ignore their style manuals, and boycott any classes where adherence to a commercially sold style manual is counted against your grade.
Meanwhile, you don't need a group telling you what to say in the English language. English works fine, and has continued to work, for centuries, without hierarchy, without a body of leaders. Even languages which do have rulers, such as the French Academy, seem to get along just fine with new terms like "le parking" even though the Academy insists the usage is wrong.
Finally, let me answer the comment posed in the film quote above, purportedly representing the attitude of Lord Cornwallis at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Without officers, the men would simply go home. People don't want to fight. Look at the Christmas celebrations in 1914 amongst German and British troops, who exchanged gifts and even got up spontaneous football games in no man's land.
Tell me again, who will build the syntax, if English has no government? Why, everyone. Anyone who needs to construct a sentence that others can understand will build syntax. Rappers and singers and poets and writers have always built their own. Deal with it.
Tell me again, with officers holding guns on their troops to force them to face the enemy bullets, what exactly is it you want with a government? Why do you want to have leaders? They aren't on your side. They don't like you much. They use you, feed off your efforts, and put you in front of them to get killed in battle. They treat you like garbage. So, what's your idea, here? You want leaders...for what?
Who built roads before your national government existed? Roads came into existence as travellers moved about. Have you ever been to a shopping mall? All private land. Lots of roads, parking lots, stairs, elevators, escalators, polished floor space. Somehow, people manage to move around without any government. Golly. Who will build the roads without government? Me. You. Anyone.
If you are a savage, a barbarian, a scoundrel, maybe you should govern yourself. Clearly, you have no more need of an externally imposed hierarchy than the English language does. If English can get along in its contemporary form since roughly 1600 without a governing body, so can you.
Disobey. Your chains: break them. Choose to be free.