Academy of Modern English

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© Greg Ory 2018, Debate: Academy of Modern English, an outline by Gregorius Vatis Advena, proposing an independent regulatory body for English.

As the orthography of languages evolves and difficulties arise, regulatory bodies are created to provide orientation and binding standards. These bodies can be national, when they are related to the government of national states, or independent, when they operate as an autonomous institution.

2. All major European languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and German, have at least one national or independent regulatory body. English is an exception. Although there have been calls for orthographic regulation and spelling reforms for many centuries, the implicit assumption is that reforms and regulations will emerge spontaneously. This is not likely to be the case. The historical evidence shows that major orthographic changes only happen through regulatory bodies or after traumatic socio-political events.

3. To give a short historical account, most inconsistencies of Renaissance French were only resolved after the French Academy was founded. Even so, the last major spelling changes date back to the French Revolution. Portuguese spelling was reformed in 1911 after the monarchy was overthrown in Lisbon. The last major reform of German spelling was in 1921 after the First World War. Italian spelling was only reformed during Mussolini’s dictatorship.

4. Although most major reforms follow from some kind of socio-political trauma, regulatory bodies can be useful in times of prosperity. The Royal Spanish Academy made important changes to Spanish spelling in the 18th century. In recent years, major bodies brought about reforms of German and Portuguese spelling. The English language would profit immensely from a regulatory body. It is worth enquiring how this body could be formed, funded and organised.

5. The body may be called Academy of Modern English. The word Academy follows the tradition of other regulatory and learned bodies. The phrase Modern English is an unambiguous way to refer to the language. It is better than simply English Academy, where English could refer to something related to England in special. Although Modern English arose in England, the Academy is concerned with a language and not with a country. This is what its title should express above all. Moreover, the title Academy of English is imprecise, as English may refer to Old, Middle and Modern English. This is why Academy of Modern English would be the best name.

6. The Academy can only exist as an independent body. English is the language of too many countries. None of them shall reserve the right to found such an institution unilaterally. The foundation must be a concerted multi-lateral initiative. Multi-lateral means involving at least two countries where English is a native language. The Academy must be officially founded by these governments.

7. The Academy shall not be based in any of these countries. This would be construed as one country trying to impose prescriptions on others. Instead, the Academy must be on neutral territory. This should be a country (1) where English is not a native language, (2) which has high standards of neutrality in international law, and (3) where there is no risk of governmental interference with the Academy. No country could be more suitable than the Swiss Confederation.

8. To form the Academy, a small group of petitioners will need to address a number of governments. This group will have emerged from the academics and intellectuals most committed to the English language. Once the Academy is founded, they will be its first members. Every founding government may appoint a fixed number of members, e.g. three for each government. This being done, all members convene and appoint a number of members equal to theirs, thus doubling the total number. This procedure will be repeated until a fixed number of members is reached, e.g. a hundred. Native and non-native members may be chosen and invited from anywhere in the world, according to their commitment for the English language. The Academy will elect any new members by agreement among existing members. The tenure will be limited.

9. Once the Academy is complete, the first task will be to discuss and reform English orthography. Yet to enable a participative process, the Academy will not decide the future of orthography on its own: It will convoke and delegate to a Congress of English Orthography the shaping of the final proposal. Five hundred appointees will be invited to debate the state of English spelling, hyphenation and punctuation. To ensure an heterogeneous Congress, appointees will be chosen by different methods, including election and lot. They may be both experts and lay people. Every English speaking country will have a fair share of seats in the Congress. The Academy will preside the meetings, providing advice and critical input. It will present to the Congress all extant projects of orthographic reform and organise lectures and talks with experts and intellectuals from different areas.

10. The Congress will convene for two years, after which it will present to the Academy its official proposal for an Orthographic Agreement. The Academy will then submit the Orthographic Agreement to the governments of all countries where English is spoken as a native language. Signatories will agree to implement the new orthographic rules within a given time frame. The Orthographic Agreement shall be deemed a valid international treaty if at least two English speaking countries are signatories. Further countries may join at a later point.

11. Once the agreement has come into force, the Academy may pursue the following major tasks: (1) publicise the Orthographic Agreement worldwide and ensure it is implemented in the signatory countries; (2) elaborate a comprehensive dictionary implementing the Orthographic Agreement; (3) found and maintain schools and social projects in disadvantaged areas of the signatory countries; (4) award an annual prize for two publications on English grammar; (5) award two annual prizes of literature, one for poetry and one for prose.

12. To ensure complete independence, the Academy must be self-sufficient in financial terms. This can be achieved in three phases: Initially, the costs will be funded by subventions from the founding governments and investments from the private sector. In the second phase, the Academy will start building its own sources of income, so that one third of the funding will come from founding governments, one third from the private sector, and one third from the Academy’s own income. Finally, the Academy will be funded completely by its own income. The process towards self-sufficiency should take no longer than ten years.

13. Among the innumerable sources of income, the Academy may choose: (1) culture and education by running general and specialised schools, museums, theatres, concert halls, stadiums etc; (2) sustainable land development, including agriculture and stock-farming, provided that enough land is acquired. This will ensure enough means for the projects the Academy needs to carry out.

14. Every member of the Academy will be paid a salary during the time of his or her tenure, calculated according to the average living costs of the city where the Academy is based. To ensure the greatest standard of commitment, members are not allowed to pursue any trade or profession during their tenure. After the tenure, members will lose their seat in the Assembly and become honorary members, retaining the title Member of the Academy. They will be able to apply for a seat for specific meetings on certain occasions.

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