LINGUIST List 6.1446

Tue Oct 17 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. , Prescriptivism
  2. David Fertig, Re: 6.1439, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Waruno Mahdi, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 17 Oct 1995 10:19:58 CDT
Subject: Prescriptivism

I might as well put my two cents into the discussion of prescriptivism.

First, I agree with most of what the others have already said on the subject.
In particular, I must reemphasize two of their points (rephrased in my own
inimitable fashion):

1. Prescriptions based on accurate desriptions are no vice.

2. We language teachers (for that is what I mainly do: teach German) are
prescriptivist to the core: "You will do it the way the Germans do; it's their
language, and their way is the right way."

The second point is a tad problematic, given the diversity of mutually
nonintelligible German dialects and regional variations even in the standard
language. But on principle it's correct, and we depend on it.

I would add several other points, however, in defense of prescriptivism in
*first-language* teaching.

First, we must recognize that it is the job of a "grammar" teacher to teach
students to use a prestige form of their first language. It is essential to
teach students to say "You and I can do it", not "Me and you can do it." Why?
Because tolerating the other form in what is supposed to be *prestige* usage is
as bad as tolerating "2+2=5" in arithmetic, or permitting a bassist to use a
"blue note" (quarter tone) in playing Mozart. Obviously, this has nothing to do
with whether "me and you" is an acceptable usage in other kinds of English, and
certainly not with whether the prescribed usage is "logical" -- but only with
whether it is accepted by users of the prestige dialect. That same bassist
can use the blue note when he plays jazz -- the audience will applaud, and the
piano player will envious because he can't do it.

Second, we must recognize that traditional formulations of prestige usage have
been recorded in school grammars for centuries, so that even the most absurd of
them (absurd because not based on actual prestige usage) have been internalized
by many who strive, with varying degrees of success, to speak or write the
prestige dialect. The result is that these users are *offended* when they hear
the nonprestige forms where, for whatever reason, prestige forms would be
expected. The schoolmarms and their successors try to teach students to speak
and write so as to be accepted and thus *heard* by their intended audience.
It is important for them to teach even that most stupid of rules, that it is
wrong to "split" an infinitive, since some of their audience will be so
offended by the "error" that they reject the message along with the error.

Third, teaching the prestige dialect prescriptively should not mean that
prestige forms are to be used to the exclusion of all others. While I do not
use object pronouns in compound English subjects even in my most relaxed
moments, I do "split" infinitives and say "It's me." I would do neither in a
formal presentation -- just as I would not speak Bavarian dialect if my formal
presentation were in German. It is important that the schoolmarms insist on
prestige English in the classroom -- without insisting that it is somehow wrong
or "ignorant" to use nonprestige forms on other occasions.

Leo A. Connolly Foreign Languages & Literatures University of Memphis
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Message 2: Re: 6.1439, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 17 Oct 1995 15:29:16 EDT
From: David Fertig <>
Subject: Re: 6.1439, Disc: Prescriptivism

 I'm surprised that there's been no mention so far of Deborah Cameron's
new book "Verbal Hygiene" in this discussion of prescriptivism. It
presents arguments very similar to some of those found in this thread but
obviously much more developed. I recommend the book to anyone interested
in this topic, and I would be interested to hear what others think of her
 David Fertig
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Message 3: Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 17 Oct 1995 18:27:07 BST
From: Waruno Mahdi <>
Subject: Disc: Prescriptivism

Prescription and Description, in my opinion, stand in the same
relation to each other of the two sides of a medal, as de Saussure's
_immutabilite'_ and _mutabilite'_ of the sign, or Sapir's _norm_
and _drift_. Every point in the diachronic language continuum is
a determined, more or less rigid momentary state, and at the same
time a mercurial flexible instant in a flowing current.
Whether a piece of locution was uttered in language A or not, I would
say, depends on whether it complies with the latter's synchronic structure.
Insofar, learning to speak a (second, or as baby, a first) language must
mean learning the prescribed rules (explicit as per textbook, or implicit
as in pre-literate cultures). Speaking that language as an established speaker,
on the other hand, implies paricipation of one's _parole_ in the synchronic
concert that levels to the perpetually drifting norm. I say quite deliberately
say "established", not "native" speaker, because e.g. non-Anglosaxon ethnic
("non-normative") dialects of English spoken by minorities in the US could
very well contribute to the drift of American English.

The answer to the question, whether a person learning a language as
second language must necessarily abide by the prescription, depends
on what you mean by prescription. A language has many dialects, and for
me, even Melanesian Tok Pisisn ("Talk Pidgin" = Pidgin talk) is a dialect
of English. If I were a Melanesian learning English, and ended up speaking
Tok Pisin, I obviously failed to acquire the mode of speech of Oxonian
prescription, but may lie quite perfectly within the bounds of the norms of
Tok Pisin (which is an established language in Papua-New Guinea). I have
still abided to prescription, but to another one than that which I perhaps
had aimed for. But some prescription I must follow in any case. After all,
I am trying to learn a language, and what that is I can never learn from
describing my own speech. Otherwise, you could say I already spoke that
language, i.e. no need to still learn it. On the other hand, if I were an
English linguist, and wanted to find out, what "English" really is, I would
have no recourse but to carefully study and _describe_ it.

Best regards,

Waruno Mahdi
Faradayweg 4-6
14195 Berlin

tel. +49 30 8413 5407
fax. +49 30 8413 3155
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