LINGUIST List 6.1453

Wed Oct 18 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

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  1. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Prescriptivism
  2. Lynne Hewitt, prescriptivism
  3. Karl Teeter, Re: 4.329, Prescriptivism
  4. Vicki Fromkin , prescriptivism

Message 1: Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 02:01:46 Prescriptivism
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Prescriptivism

Wow! It is amazing how many people on the list are ready to
come out in defense of prescriptivism. But can we agree
that the case of second language teaching is not really
the crucial one, since here one could easily argue that
all we are doing is telling the learner what native
speakers do, i.e., really being descriptive. UNLESS of
course we tell learners to say things which are not in fact
said by native speakers (or to avoid those which are) in
the name of some prescriptive idea. I think this happens
in second language teaching quite a bit, but then it is
clear that THAT is NOT what the various colleagues who
have written on this point had in mind, isn't it?

Bloomfield, in a paper which I rarely if ever see
mentioned, sought to lay the groundwork for a theory of
how societies decide what is "correct" and showed that
the notion of "correctness" is not restricted to
literate societies with grammarians and dictionaries,
Maybe we can go from there.
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Message 2: prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 09:58:35 prescriptivism
From: Lynne Hewitt <>
Subject: prescriptivism

The recent discussions of "prescriptivism" as a straw man have raised some
important issues about our stance towards our science, but I think it's
important not to forget that an analytic stance is more than just a polite
fiction. As one simple example, I recently tried to teach my undergraduate
acquisition students about the acquisition of passive in English, and
mentioned in passing that the "get" passive was typically produced before
the "be" passive. I looked around the room and saw expressions of shock and
confusion. Constructions that are not officially taught and described are
invisible in this way--we can only see them when we are taught to see
structures as they are, and not only as they are taught.

Another example: trying to get native speakers of Hindi to tell you what
they really say colloquially has been in my experience nearly impossible.
They see their language through a prescriptivist filter even more obscuring
than that practiced in typical pedagogy of U.S. English.

I'm not sure, but in some of the posts on this topic people seem to be
arguing that any notion of language "correctness" is inherently
prescriptivist. But there is a danger of conflating two separate critiques
of a simplistic anti-prescriptivism. Some so-called prescriptive
grammarians derived their rules from studies of actual usage (a
descriptivist stance on "correctness"), but others surely have promoted
certain dialects at the expense of others. The real damage of prescriptivism
to linguistic minorities is not a "straw man"--consider the African American
children diagnosed as mentally retarded or language disordered on the basis
of dialect differences. I struggle to train future speech-language
pathologists who are blissfully unaware that the copula is optional in the
dialects of many Americans, or that formal tests constructed for one
population cannot be used to diagnose disorder in another.

Perhaps respondents to this topic feel that such issues are so well-known
that they need no repetition. But in interacting with my students, who in
the future will have the power to label children as "normal" or "disabled",
the prescriptivist stance they usually start from seems far from being a
straw man.

Lynne Hewitt
Dept. of Communication Disorders
Penn State
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Message 3: Re: 4.329, Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 11:33:41 Re: 4.329, Prescriptivism
From: Karl Teeter <>
Subject: Re: 4.329, Prescriptivism

Dear Jacques: Rather than being a straw man as you say, or something
relatively new as you quote Alexis saying, precriptivism is in fact very
old stuff in linguistics, going back all the way to the ancient Latin
grammarians and anomaly vs. analogy. When American linguists speak of it
they think of its manifesxtations in respect to English grammar and
English teaching, and here it goes back in a continuous line in America to
Noah Webster, who sought to differentiate "American" from "British"
English. But its origins in respect to English grammar are
continuous from the reaction against English in Britain's being based
on a London standard -- all part of the bourgeois class struggle, the
history since the 18th century being nicely summarized by the non-Marxist
H.A. Gleason, Jr., Linguistics and English Grammar, N.Y.: Holt, 1965. What
all this business about usage has to do with your discussion I find it hard
to figure out: going by usage was the first shibboleth of descriptive vs.
prescriptive grammar, not to speak of anomaly vs. analogy, and also goes
back at least to the ancient Latin grammarians. Was it Quintilian (or
maybe anti-Quintilian)? Cheers, KVT
(=Karl V. Teeter, Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus, Harvard University)
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Message 4: prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 18 Oct 1995 14:41:00 prescriptivism
From: Vicki Fromkin <IYO1VAFMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: prescriptivism

I am rather confused by the discussion on 'prescriptive grammars' and
on the amount of discussion this question has generated. I would suggest
that the linguistic critics of prescriptivism are certainly not opposed
to dictionaries or teaching grammars but are concerned about
this issue because of the language 'pundits' who bemoan the
degradation of the English (or French, or...) language
and view most language change as degradation. It is important for
linguists to show that people like Edwin Newman in his books "Strictly
Speaking" and "A Civil Tongue" are just plain ignorant of language change
when they rant against those who use the word 'hopefully' to mean "I hope"
instead of using it 'properly' to mean 'with hope'.

Perhaps the Unicorn Society of Lake Superior State College which issues
an annual "dishonor" list of words and phrases of which they do not approve
have a sense of humor which we can all enjoy, but we should not forget the
'educational psychologists' who promulgated the view that speakers of
Black English were illogical as revealed by their language. Such
prescriptivists are the rightful targets of linguists.

We all know that the prescriptists (not the writers of dictionaries
or teaching grammars) throughout history used their 'elitism' and
'dialect supremacy" arguments for political purposes. See, for example the
quote in the Fromkin & Rodman Intro text from the British journal "London
Review" askingJefferson "Why, after trampling upon the honour of our
country and representing it as little better than a land of barbarism
- why..perpetually trample also upon the very grammar of our language"
They go on: "...we will forgive all your attacks...upon on national
character but for the future spare -- O spare, we besech you, our mother

The distinction between teaching grammars and prescriptive views
should be obvious. In addition I do not know anyone in the field
who opposes the notion that whatever is considered the 'standard' may
have social consequences and therefore probably needs to be learned
and used by those who wish to succeed in certain professions, jobs,
etc in a society in which those who know this dialect are in power.

What many of us are rightfully, I think, still concerned with is the
view that one dialect of a language is better, more complex, etc etc
than another from a linguistic (not a social) point of view, and we
are concerned with just as the language pundits in Greece who believed
that the language of Homer was being destroyed (during the time of
Aristophanes) were wrong, so are their counterparts today regarding
 any of the languages or dialects spoken around the world.
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