The English Language: No Academy, Multiple Authorities


The realm of English is basically a “no rules world” with “too many cooks” in effect. Well, at least the rules we do have, we don’t all – always – agree on.

Differences in English from country to country are evident in spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, meaning, etc., but there are even differences from region to region within each country. Then there are the differences in tone depending on the type of publication – tabloid, newspaper, weekly, monthly, academic press. Here we have to consider all the above – national, regional, local differences as well as tone and style. Our English dictionaries are used in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Of course, anyone who has visited Scotland, Australia, London, New York or the American Deep South is very aware of pronunciation differences. Fortunately for those of us who deal with the written forms of English, this is one problem we don’t have to consider. Well, not entirely, but that’s another blog.

For English speakers worldwide there is little problem reading the various forms of English, but the challenge really emerges when we try to write well, especially from a professional point of view. No American would write colour or organise; no British person would write color. However, Brits could write organise and organize because they are alternative spellings in UK English. Although the UK media and the majority of Brits clearly prefer organise.

Perhaps the most important reason for these differences is the fact that English does not have – has never had – a language academy or any type of central authority. Adding to the fact that there are approximately half a billion native speakers of English, and well over 1 billion non-native speakers spread throughout the world, leads to a situation where the English language is used virtually unchecked, while simultaneously being pulled and pushed in many directions.

As a common point of reference for us all, just open Microsoft’s spell-check menu at the bottom of a document. For those of you who don’t have it, Microsoft lists 18 separate varieties of English in their 2007 version of Word (note that they list 16 for Arabic, 5 Chinese, 16 French, 5 German, and believe it or not, 9 Sami – better known as Lapp* in English). However, at the top of the bunch you will find 21 versions of Spanish. Microsoft is primarily based on one version per country, which really isn’t the whole story. In fact, here we have to take a lot more detail into account. For example, there are also many stylebooks that are commonly in use. Among them are the most recognized – Associated Press, New York Times’ manual, Canadian Press, The Economist, Chicago Manual of Style, APA and MLA styles, etc. In addition, almost without exception, all our customers have their own internal stylebook or guide.

So why doesn’t English have a central authority, language council or academy like most languages with a large number of speakers (especially French, Spanish and German)? Good question, with no simple answer. There were attempts in the 16th and 17th centuries. Spelling reform got a boost from Samuel Johnson in the 1750’s and then again from Noah Webster in the early 1800’s. But English speakers have been very resistant to reform (and standardization – maybe that says more about us as a group of people than about English!) If you want to read in more detail, I recommend David Crystal’s books. Crystal is an academic British linguist who writes extensively about English in an entertaining, accessible, interesting way.

What then do we English speakers use as our authority for spelling? In all the years I have tried to explain the inconsistencies in spelling such as co-operation, cooperation or coöperation (yes, really, check out The New Yorker), workout or work-out (note: only as a noun or adjective, since we agree that the verb is to ‘work out’), my answer has been a noncommittal “…choose one dictionary and stick to its recommended form – just be consistent”.

But even our dictionaries fail us when it comes to consistency. In conversations with a number of dictionary editors they explained (confessed?) that in fact they wait until the general population accepts a new word or a change in spelling – especially from a two-word phrase to a hyphenated form to a compound word. Examples: child care, child-care, childcare or health care, health-care, healthcare.

The US has many versions of Webster’s dictionaries (not all related to the original), plus American Heritage, Random House, Oxford American, etc. The UK has just as many with Oxford, Cambridge, Collins, Longman, Chambers, etc. Then there’s Canada and Australia – well, you get the picture. In effect, they are all our authorities, with a layer or two of stylebooks – official and local – tossed on top.

So who decides how we should spell new words, or change an old spelling, for example, the one for electronic books (e-book, ebook, e-Book, eBook)? But then they are just one type of the new e-readers, ereaders, e-Readers, eReaders…

Basically then as I understand it, it’s us – the native speakers – in the long run, filtered through the editors at major publications finally appearing on the pages of the many official English dictionaries – which we rely on in the first place to tell us how to spell words.

Bit of a vicious circle, isn’t it?

Originally Posted on: