The challenge of identifying the origins of language is one that has never been resolved by mankind – we possess insufficient evidence or methods of analysis to conclusively explain why I’m writing this using the spelling, words and grammar patterns which are universally recognised as English. Yes, we know that English has been influenced by the Romans, the French and the Saxons to name but a few and going further back, we are aware that most European languages trace their roots to something called Proto-Indo European before branching into their modern families, but no matter how far we attempt to follow the linguistic generations, a definite comprehension of where it all came from will probably remain an unsolved mystery for eternity.
Yet despite not knowing the origins of our means of verbal communication, we are fervent custodians of it in its present form, none more so than the handful of so-called Immortels in the Académie Française. The Académie was founded in the 17th Century to entrench the uniqueness of the French language and has more recently been locked in combat against the creeping pervasiveness of les anglicismes, which have been met with consistent contempt. Words such as le fashionista, le deadline, impacter or spoiler have been rejected as nefarious anglo-inspired outbursts of linguistic hybridity, whilst others like le sandwich and le week-end have slipped in against a backdrop of suspicion.
Not content with raising the flood barriers against the barrage of Britishness represented by the word l’email (which for reasons unbeknownst to most should be rejected in favour of le courriel), the Académie also offers its followers a useful guide of how to use words and prepositions on its blog dire, ne pas dire. Whilst I insist the OUCA blog makes for more compelling perusal, the pedantry of dire, ne pas dire is almost as enthralling.
Ever want to know the difference between affectueux and affectif, or when conclusif must be employed instead of concluant? Worry not, the Immortels have helpful elucidations to assist. They even offer swift lectures on why etymology dictates French people must rule out le tapis rouge, why la choix is too sclerotic to cope with the subtleties of le Francais, or why la formation en ligne is more delectable than the rebarbative anglicism l’e-learning.
Naturally, their pieces are the source of much amusement and I admit to having spent an unhealthy amount of time guffawing at the thought of anyone seriously obtaining une information en exclusivité in lieu of un scoop or being enraged at un business plan, but behind the façade of light-hearted conservationism, there is something a little more sinister at play.
Although we cannot discern its origins, language is beautifully organic. It flows and evolves and accommodates the environment in which it is spoken to form a succulent smoothie of sounds and syllables. Words come and go with waves of conquest, immigration and cultural rebellion, owned briefly by the larynxes of their interlocutors and subject only to the demands of communication and pleasure. Of course, there is a correct way to structure a sentence and an appropriate adjective for all eventualities, but to smother us all into linguistic conformity would be to quash the personality from our every utterance.
Just as national borders and identities have softened in the era of globalisation and democratisation of tourism, so too have linguistic differences been macerated into a more fluid blend of borrowing, lending and theft of vocabulary. In English we speak of the Zeitgeist or a Doppelganger, whilst in Stuttgart you could find yourself in einem Meeting after procuring a caffeinated libation im lokalen Coffee-Shop. Moreover, take a moment to consider how discombobulated and indirect our interactions would be without emergent words like hangry, binge-watching, manspreading, infotainment or upcycle.
Rather than lacerating the language, loan words from our continental friends or new portmanteau (again, French word alert) have expanded its expressive capacity and the variety of possible conversations - any attempt to deny this would be as forlorn as lampooning French for not having a word for ‘entrepreneur’.
So, whether it’s the Académie Francaise or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide, all I can say is leave our language alone. Sanction the unhindered assimilation of new vocabulary into our parlance and unleash the creativity of thought in spoken form; greatness is achieved when the tongue is as free as the mind. And with that settled, I’m off for a gelato and quattroformaggio in a nearby Pizzeria.
George Wright (Political Officer, Ex-Secretary, Former Deputy Returning Officer, Ex-Treasurer, Ex-Whip, Ex-Committee Member, St John’s College) is an undergraduate in his second year of studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics.