Prescriptivist Descriptivism

by Dec 11, 2018Linguistics

This is exactly where I’m at:

Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying TheEconomist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.

And I think he demonstrates that they do. Though he doesn’t say it, I’d point to the third rail of class as lurking in the background of this discussion. On the one hand, the reason there are standards, a right and a wrong way to say/write things, is that the people with power in any given society have a certain way of speaking/writing, and they all notice deviations. On the other hand, the elites’ way of speaking/writing is not necessarily intrinsically superior. It didn’t come down from heaven. And it changes over time, just like everyone else’s way of speaking/writing.

People worry that this kind of change will mean language will fall apart. But the writer makes this trenchant observation:

Prescriptivists cannot point to a single language that became unusable or inexpressive as a result of people’s failure to uphold traditional vocabulary and grammar. Every language existing today is fantastically expressive. It would be a miracle, except that it is utterly commonplace, a fact shared not only by all languages but by all the humans who use them.

He concludes wisely:

Spontaneous order doesn’t sit well with people. We are all tempted to think that complex systems need management, a benign but firm hand. But just as market economies turn out better than command economies, languages are too complex, and used by too many people, to submit to command management. Individual decisions can be bad ones, and merit correction, but we can be optimistic that, in the long run, change is inevitable and it will turn out all right. Broadly trusting the distributed intelligence of your fellow humans to keep things in order can be hard to do, but it’s the only way to go. Language is self-regulating. It’s a genius system – with no genius.

Read the whole thing.

Update: A friend pointed out gently that the very last line probably shouldn’t be exactly what I think. And I agree. God is the genius that holds language together. He regulates it. It’s one of the ways he puts boundaries between nations, I personally think (Acts 17:26). But here’s the thing: God has given us no direct access to his ideas about a given language. Our access to meaning still comes through observing what, in fact, people mean when they use given words.

HT: Don Johnson

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