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.

“I, Claudius” & “Claudius the God” Book Review

We are slowly working are way through French history. In the last blog post we looked at Julius Caesar conquest of Gaul. This time we are looking at politics and drama in the house of Caesar and how the Roman Emperors that came after Julius Caesar affected the fate of Europe.

In this review we will be looking at “I, Claudius” (1934) “Claudius the God” (1935) By Robert Graves.

Claudius did not consider himself to be a Frenchmen, largely because France or the French did not really exist until about 500 years after his death, however the man who would one day be Emperor of Rome was born in what would one day be Lyon, France, which in Claudius’s day was called Lugdunum in Gaul.

Original covers
The original covers of “I Claudius” and “Claudius the God”

Claudius the God



Claudius’s father was a general in the Roman army who was at the time of Claudius’s birth, engaged in military activities with the Gauls. The book “I, Claudius” is an excellent introduction into the ancient Roman world. France, Spain, Germany, Belgium and Briton were still barbaric lands that the “civilized” Romans were in the process of colonizing. Meanwhile in Rome the first family of the Caesars played a deadly game of not so civilized house politics.

Based on historical sources “I, Claudius” is a partly fictionalized, or should I say dramatized, account of the early history of four Roman Caesars.

After reading I, Claudius I went back and read many of the original source books (in English). These include works on Roman history by Tacitus, Plutarch, and especially Suetonius, who wrote “The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.”

Written from the point of view of Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus; 10 B.C. – 54 A.D.) who for most of his life was believed to be the family fool.

Graves said that he was inspired to write the book after Claudius came to him in a Dream and demanded that he write the true version of his life. Claudius had been dismissed by many historians as a halfwit but as the Caesar Claudius did more for Rome than the two Caesars before him and the one that followed after him combined.

Augustus Caesar
Augustus Caesar

The book starts in the mid-point of Augustus Caesar’s reign*. As Augustus and his wife Livia rebuild Rome from the ravages of past civil wars (Rome had three civil wars, The last one was between Augustus and Mark Anthony and left Augustus in power in Rome)

*Augustus Caesar lived 63 B.C. to 14 A.D. and was Emperor of Rome from 27 BC to 14 A.D.

Augustus is married to Claudius’s grandmother Livia. Livia is a master in the art of politics, manipulation, revenge and murder. It is Livia along with Augustus that transform Rome from a republic to a dictatorship.

Caligula Caesar 12 A.D to 41 A.D.

The book gives great insight into the politics of power in the ancient world through the problematic years of Tiberius and the deadly years of Caligula. Whose name meant “little boots” in Latin.

For as a child Caligula traveled with his father who was the general of the army. Caligula had his own mini-version of the soldier’s uniform including little sandal-boots known as “caliga” that the soldiers wore.

In “I, Claudius” and the sequel “Claudius the God” writer and poet Robert Graves uses the modern place and country names in place of the old Latin names. So that the interested reader can easily find the places on a modern map.

imagesI, Claudius From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius Born 10 B.C. Murdered and Deified A.D. 54 (Vintage International)

Robert Graves was an Oxford Don who was able to speak and read both Greek and Latin fluently. Graves was also a veteran of the trenches of World War One and saw Europe at one of its most barbaric stages.


Roman "swordsmen"
Roman “swordsmen”

Graves writes the book as if Claudius were writing in Greek. The Romans spoke Latin, but upper class “educated” Romans wrote and spoke Greek to each other. This device give Graves and excuse to translate and explain such common Latin words as “gladiator” into their real meanings; (Latin for sword is “gladio” a “gladiator” is a “swordsman”).

This device gives Graves a chance to explain some of the hidden meanings of many Latin based words that are still in use today.

This is an excellent book for those who wish to understand the early formation of Europe and the Roman Empire. France (Gaul) was considered to be part of the Roman Empire in Claudius’s day. As were Germany and Spain and eventually Briton. In the second book “Claudius the God”, Claudius leads a military expedition to conquer Briton.

“I, Claudius” is a great historical work, the times and dates are accurate and based on pains taking research. The characters are fresh and vivid and the politics are credited with having many other writers who came after Graves. (Fans of George R.R. Martin may notice certain similarities between “I, Claudius” and the “Game of Thrones”.)

Robert Graves; 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985)
Robert Graves; 24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985

Robert Graves was the son of an Irish poet and a German mother. He attended an English school where he was beaten up almost daily because of his parentage. Graves finally joined the boxing team and was given some respite from the constant bullying. He served in World War One achieving the rank of Captain and return to England to live and work at Oxford University. Where he became friends with T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia).

Graves finally moved to the Spanish island of Minorca in the Mediterranean where he spent the rest of his life as a poet and writer.

Written at age 34, Graves autobiography.
Written at age 34, Graves autobiography.

In Spain Graves wrote a biography called “Good-Bye to All That” (1929). Graves suffered from bullies at boarding school and then with the start of the first World War he is shipped off to France where he gives a first hand account of life in the trenches.

Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography