Who makes the language rules?

Lexicography” is the art or craft of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries.

Lexicographer” is a person who writes dictionaries and studies the history and meaning of words.

There are few different elements that go into making the rules of a language. I am still not an expert in French by any means. But this is a little essay on where our modern languages come from.

I remember reading about Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709 – 1784) who led a team of nine scholars in creating one of the first English language dictionaries. In 1755 “A Dictionary of the English Language” was published for the first time. In doing so Dr. Johnson actually changed the language.

Before 1755 there were no real standardized spelling rules. Different parts of England had different names for different things. A “bumble bee” in some areas of England was known as a “dumbledore” in other places. Dr. Johnson chose one name for an object and stuck with that one name.

Many of the older names for objects are now considered to be slang terms. E.G. An older term for a “girl” was “bird”. “Bird” is now considered a slang term but it is, in fact an older word that was discarded from the mainstream.

I’ve been studying in French and Italian recently it’s interesting to me that the languages are very similar, as they are both based on Latin, but their choice made at some point in history as to what constituted a word was made. Take a look at the simple statement, “follow me” translated into Italian, French, and Latin.

English = Follow me.

French = Suivez-moi.     (Suivre= follow, moi = me)

Italian = Seguitemi.     (Seguire  = follow,  mi = me)

Latin = Sequi me. =      (sequi = follow,  me = me)

In English (the newest of the four languages) “Follow me” is two words.
In French, it is two words joined with a dash.
In Italian, it is one word.
And most interesting of all, in Latin, the granddaddy of all these languages it’s two words.

At some point in time four sets of Lexicographers working in four different countries, most likely working with quill pens, decided if “Follow me” was one or two words. Hundreds of years later we still live with their decisions.

These are the kinds of choices made by ancient Lexicographers that we are still living with today.

It should be pointed out that Languages change over a period of time. Shakespeare is considered “modern English” yet most people today find Shakespeare’s plays difficult to understand.

So who made the rules for the French Language?

Published more than 60 years before Dr. Johnson’s dictionary Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française {The Dictionary of the French Academy} was published in 1694.

It’s interesting to think that the Lexicographers of Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française were exploring uncharted territory. For as in English, French which had been written for centuries before the Dictionary, there were no set rules. And the rules and traditions of the language were different in different parts of France.

The Lexicographers compiling the Dictionary of the French Academy said that their mission was to “preserve the status of the French Language as it should be written (and spoken).”

Work on the first dictionary took more than forty years. The second volume of the Dictionary was a little quicker taking only 36 years.

Now this may seem like a lot of time and it can be pointed out that the first English dictionary took only nine years and the English language has more words than the French language, however, it should be noted that the French language was in official use for a lot longer than the English language. The researchers of French had to go through a lot more material than those compiling the English dictionary.

French, was in fact, the official language of the British House of Lords until the beginning of the 20th century.

For many years English was considered to be a sort of street slang language. It was spoken but not written down. The British nobles spoke French, the House of Lords kept their records in French and the Clergy spoke Latin. English was spoken by most of the people without any rules so it was allowed to evolve and become more fluid.

It’s always interesting to me that the French don’t pronounce the final consonant of their words. I’m sure that at some point and time these consonants were pronounced but slowly but surely they were dropped from speech over the years.

This most likely happened after the creation of French dictionaries. So now the population of France had a spelling and an oral tradition that out of sync. This happens in English as well but as English was standardized later the Lexicographers could record a more modern version of the language.

I don’t want to seem bias here. As a native English speaker, I have grown up with the language. I realize that other language learners find English confusing. Spanish has very exact rules and is a very consistent language, from what I understand. I’ve seen comedy routines where a native Spanish Speaker makes fun of the inconsistencies of English.

The inconsistencies of French, in my opinion, may have been caused by the earlier creation of a dictionary. Before 1694, did anyone really know what a dictionary was supposed to be? It may simply be that English being a language of the masses and not the nobility was a lot less formal than French, but it could also be that Dr. Johnson learned from and improved on the idea about how the French language was recorded in Le Dictionnaire de l’Académie Française, when creating his own English dictionary.

In English we say,

  • I go
  • You go
  • He goes
  • They go

(There are only two versions of the root word “go”.)

In French:

  • Je vais = (I go)
  • Tu vas = (informal – you go.)
  • Vous allez = (formal – you go)
  • Il va = (he goes)
  • Ils vont = (they go).

(The French root word “go” = «aller» changes with each usage.)

By creating all the tenses and adopting all the word genders from Latin the early French Lexicographers may have felt that they were making the language more logical, scientific and in the Latin tradition. As French was a language of the Royal court it would have also been important to have a formal word for “you” and as well as an informal version.

Latin was considered the most important of Languages at the time when the French and English dictionaries were created. As members of the church and universities spoke and wrote in Latin. Latin was also the language of the early scientists.

Francis Bacon

English scholar Francis Bacon, (1561 –  1626) who only ever wrote in Latin, saying that it was a much more expressive language than English.

Latin was once considered a B-class language. In the time of Julius Caesar (100 BC to 44 BC) the Roman upper classes spoke to each other in Greek. Greek was considered to be the language of learning. It is interesting that Caesar’s last words were in Greek, however in Shakespeare’s play Caesar’s last words “Et tu, Brute?” are in Latin which was more prestigious than English and more widely understood than Greek in Shakespeare’s day.

Gaius Julius Caesar Born 13 July 100 B.C. – died 15 March 44 B.C.

Caesar’s last words according to Roman historian, who lived at the time of Caesar, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69 BC – after 122 AD) were;

“καὶ σὺ τέκνον “
(pronounced Kai su, teknon) = {You too, my son/child.}

The Greek Language predates that of Latin by thousands of Years. Homer’s epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were written about the Trojan war that took place around 1194–1184 BC. As a result of this ten year war the survivors of the Troy fled for their lives and settled in what is now Rome. They lived in small villages for the next few hundreds of years. The early kingdom of Rome was founded around 753 BC.

Greek was the older language and greater language. There were books and plays written in Greek. People from other countries around the world studied Greek. On the other hand, Latin at this time was just the language of the Romans. Who were for the most part unknown to the rest of the world. And they would have been looked down upon as the offspring of Trojan refugees and escaped slaves.

Latin gain importance because of Rome’s military prowess in the time of Julius Caesar. Caesar lived about 700 years after the founding of Rome. Caesar marched with his army around Europe conquering the broze age tribes in what is today, Spain, Britain, France, Germany and Belgium.  The language of Latin was spread all over Europe. Caesar spread the language to Gaul, which is now modern France and the language mixed with the language of the native

Caesar spread the Latin language to Gaul, which is now modern France and the language mixed with the language of the native Parisii people (the people living in and around modern Paris) and Frankish and Norman invaders and eventually formed French.

French Quote Fingers

French quotation marks are called – guillemets.
Pronounced (gee-yee-may).
And they look like this – « ».

Quote fingers.
Anglo-American quote fingers are used in France.

I was surprised when my French friends said that the French use quote fingers (or air-quotes) in the same way that they are used by English speakers.

I think it’s time that the French should have their own quote finger sign, or should we say «guillemets des doigts».

 

French quote fingers.
Proposed French quote fingers.

 

Guillemets quote fingers will of course be easier for Star Trek fans to make.

I am thinking of creating a proposal for the Académie française, pertaining to the use of «guillemets des doigts» (quote fingers) or should they be called « guillemets de l’air »” (quotes of the air).

The Académie française (French Academy) is a council that deals with matters concerning the French language. They from time to time vote to make changes in French, recently removing an accent mark.

The Académie française was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu, whom you might recognize as the antagonist in the Alexander Dumas historical novel «Les Trois Mousquetaires» (The Three Musketeers).

There are forty members on the Académie française are called «les immortels» (the immortals) and hold their positions for life, or until they retire. They are the sort of supreme court of the French language.

quote-fingers-new-english-008

I’m not sure how the Académie française would react to French air quotes. I’ve tried it out on a few of my French friends, none of whom are Star Trek fans, so they had difficulty making the signs. «C’est la vie.»

«»«»«»«»«»

On PC’s the short cuts for guillemets are.

ALT + 174 = «

Alt +  174 = »

Mac short cuts for guillemets

 Option+Backslash = «

Option+Shift+Backslash = »