On this date in 1780, John Adams wrote to the President of Congress to discuss an important linguistic issue. Although the colonists were still at war with the English nation, Adams, with the characteristic foresight of a Founding Father, looked forward to a time when his young nation might succeed where the British failed by establishing an academy to regulate the English language:
Most of the nations of Europe have thought it necessary to establish by public authority institutions for fixing and improving their proper languages. I need not mention the academies in France, Spain, and Italy, their learned labors, nor their great success. But it is very remarkable, that although many learned and ingenious men in England have from age to age projected similar institutions for correcting and improving the English tongue, yet the government have never found time to interpose in any manner; so that to this day there is no grammar or dictionary extant of the English language which has the least public authority, and it is only very lately that a tolerable dictionary has been published even by a private person, and there is not yet a passable grammar enterprised by any individual . . . . I would therefore submit to the consideration of Congress the expediency and policy of erecting by their authority a society under the name of “The American Academy for refining, improving, and ascertaining the English language (1).
History tells us that Adams wish never came to fruition The closest thing that American English has to an academy is the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, a group of 200 scholars and writers who are surveyed each year to share their opinions on questions of usage and grammar (2).
Today’s Challenge: Laying Down the Language Law
If an American English Academy were established, and you were elected its leader, what linguistic proclamation would you make concerning the speaking and/or writing of English?
Quote of the Day: The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore. –Stephen Fry