LINGUIST List 6.1470

Sat Oct 21 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

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  1. benji wald , Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. , Prescriptivism
  3. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 6.1464, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 20 Oct 1995 12:12:00 Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1459, Disc: Prescriptivism

I am following the discussion of prescriptivism with great interest, and I
detect a bit of soul-searching among the postings. My last posting on the
topic was somewhat tongue-in-cheek (though true). I would like to be more
serious here, because I think presecrptivim is a serious and interesting

To begin with, I think the conflict or tension about prescriptivism that
some discussants feel comes from the "pure" linguistic view that it has no
place in LINGUISTIC analysis. This view, I believe, is correct, because we
know that those features of language which are condemned as "incorrect" are
arbitrary and the result of historical "accident". They are just as
susceptible to linguistic analysis, and just as logical as whatever is held
up as the correct way of saying it, easy example, "me and you" as subject,
or "between you and I" (if you can appreciate this example as "incorrect").
Ferguson, I think, made the point for English-speakers in his article on
Diglossia that there is no way we could tell which was the prestige form and
which the stigmatised form in a language we didn't know, e.g., Arabic or
Greek. Maybe, in fact, if we were given pairs of forms and some relevant
information about the structure of the language we could accurately guess in
some cases which was prestige and which stigmatised, e.g., regular forms
would be stigmatised and more obscure forms prestige in cases like feet vs.
feets/foots or gave vs. gived etc. Hypercorrection might confound this issue
in a meaner test -- is it squeezed or squoze?

We feel tension because this point of view abstracts us from the social uses
to which language is put, and to which we are no less subjected than anybody
else. We worry about the impression we KNOW we'd make if we said I have went/
came instead of ... gone/come etc., even among our own colleagues (it
actually happened to me because I'm still a part-time vernacular speaker).
And we tell our children how to say it right, because we worry about the
social consequences if we (they?) don't.

As I think I said before, we also wear clothes when we don't want to, and
don't really even think about it. As Teeter, and Alexis referring to
Bloomfield, noted: one of the functions of language is to separate society
into groups, the nature of which varies according to the society, but the
fact of which in language seems to be universal, including that some groups
will speak language which is condemned by other groups -- the feeling may be
mutual Shaw tells us in the introduction to Pygmalion, referring to rigid
class anatagonisms in British society. For that matter, the function, if
you will, of the fact that there are so many different languages in the
world is to divide people into groups. There is a grain of truth (or two)
in the observation underlying the Tower of Babel story. However, I'm
not suggesting that within any particular society generally held presecriptive
beliefs about language, which divide people, are disfunctional. I just don't
know. Maybe the Utopian view that we must respect each other is naive.
However, when I think of the example of "Black English" and the racist
rationalisations about it I see the disrespect and also the logic of it
in terms of American history and how that society has evolved. All
specific examples of "incorrect" forms are petty, e.g., Newman's "hopefully"
- but he's an editor, so what can his writers do in protest?, and they
would be laughable (to linguists) if they weren't so tragic in their

Once we realise the power of prescriptivism and our position as social
beings, regardless of our professional training, which contributes to our
conflict or discomfort given the correctness of our scientific point of
view, we may recognise that in order to carry on our work we have to
ignore some brute social facts that we don't really understand anyway.
I'm not in favour of shutting up when confronted with pettiness, but we
should be very much aware of what we're up against and choose our
protests carefully, not fervently. Labov's defense of Black English is
a good example -- but there aren't very many good examples, and they
depend crucially on the disposition of a society for timing.

Meanwhile, none of us knows enough about society to really understand
what prescriptivism is all about, though we certainly have inklings.
It is a field for further cultivation, but it is not pure linguistics.
I guess it's what's called sociolinguistics, but really depends on forms
of social analysis that are beyond our present understanding (I include
sociologists here, not just linguists).

Why are societies divided into those who do "good" and "bad" (linguistically
as well as in other ways), and "right" and "wrong"? Is language used as a
symbol of this to enforce the social morality of a power group (or an
advantaged interest group/leadership group)? Is this universal?
Are there other reasons for the division? (Does the motive
underlying the myth of "original sin" allude to this basic logic
of society?)

A final specific comment about "usage". The implication of some discussion
seems to be that prescription is not artificially constructed from whole
cloth by some manipulator/s, but is based on "usage". Yeah, that's what we
would generally expect, because that's using resources that already exist.
In mentioning "usage", however, it should be mentioned that it refers to
the usage of certain living models, probably always representing less than
the majority of speakers in that society. It is descriptive to the extent
it accurately reflects the usage of that prestige group. It is prescriptive
because it is presented to anyone who has ACCESS as the way to speak, as
"correct", the necessary "ticket" to social acceptance to the "right"
("correct") social circles. I did not note the people mentioning usage
mentioning that it was such selective usage, selective description -- that's
a feature of prescriptivism. Ignoring that can confuse you about the
distinction between descriptive and prescriptive. Instead, the comments
seemed to dwell the distinction between on making up
constructions to be considered correct vs. favoring the usage of
some groups of speakers over others. Even in artificial engineering we
see the impulse, as when English became Latinate in its "correct" grammar.
How many English speakers knew Latin? In any case, we see the complexity
of prescrptivism in that too, because we see the clerks and scholars,
knowing Latin, working for the elite, fashioning a language for them that
will not filter down to the masses -- until it's too late. This has all
been my undigested opinion. Benji
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Message 2: Prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 20 Oct 1995 23:53:09 Prescriptivism
Subject: Prescriptivism

A few random comments in response to several (mainly wise) things that
have already been said:

Prescriptivism is a teacherly thing, practiced mainly by classroom
teachers and by others who think it their duty to tell us how to talk.

Teachers in particular are charged with developing the students'
language proficiency, which entails telling them how best to do things
in order to achieve the goal of convincing others.

In other words, prescriptive grammar is inextricably tied to rhetoric.

Rhetoric makes extensive use of thought and logic, sometimes to convey
the truth, sometimes to confuse the listener so that the truth will be
overlooked. (Lawyers in particular use rhetoric to evade the truth
when it is inconvenient -- and no, I do not mean Johnnie Cochran in
particular. I've been sued, and I know that a plaintiff's lawyer may
try very hard to prevent the facts from being heard or considered.)

Prescriptive grammarians believe that it is in our best interest to use
the best possible language -- and at the same time, they believe that
language can be improved. Double negatives are occasionally confusing;
ban them all! Dangling prepositions can temporarily mislead; away with
them! _Shall_ and _will_ mean different things in certain contexts;
let's regulate their usage! (Pity they got it wrong.) Invoke logic to
settle disputes on usage; we want to be, or at least seem, logical!
The notion that language can be improved by pedagogical fiat is, to say
the least, misguided and even quixotic; but some such ukazes have
shaped educated usage in many languages. We make not like it; but if
it is so, we cannot ignore it.

Not surprisingly, those who aim to inculcate the best language will
find that the most common usage is not necessarily the best. Students
are urged to follow the example of acknowledged expert users of a
language. This may be a good thing if they're more or less
contemporary, but devastating if (as in the Hebrew example) the best
usage was established millennia ago. But in any case, the fact that
most speakers use a nonprestige form has nothing to do with the case.
If common usage is not regarded as good in a given culture (including
contemporary America), there's nothing we linguists can or should do
about it. The attitudes exist already. They have been shaped in part
by perhaps misguided prescriptivism in the past. But exist they do,
and no school grammarian can afford to ignore them. No one can teach
students that it's OK to use double negatives when they are regarded as
a sign of ignorance and interpreted as evidence of stupidity.

This is why, unlike some other respondents, I see nothing wrong with
usage panels. It is important to know how *educated* speakers and
writers regard certain words and usages. Their attitudes may be well
reasoned or arbitrary, perhaps even sexist or racist; but their views
are still worth knowing. If they think _hopefully_ is not the
equivalent of _I hope_, then for them it is not, and *we need to know
that if we are to impress them.* It is the task of dictionaries to
provide just such information.

I concur wholeheartedly with David Powers' remarks on politically
correct language. Twice I have served under women who called
themselves Chairman. I learned in school from a succession of women
that the proper generic pronoun was _he_. Both of these usages reflect
the considered judgment not only of (earlier) prescriptivists, but also
of hordes of careful users who used these forms naturally and
inclusively. I see no reason to jump through the linguistic hoop
raised by a new generation of prescriptivists; I continue to use the
old forms, which even the new prescriptivists know are inclusive. The
politically correct pieties spring from the same source as the
proscription of double negatives: the well-intentioned but misguided
idea that language can be made better by fiat, usage be damned. Even
though the motivation for new inclusive forms is serious -- women have
been, and still are, discriminated against -- the forms themselves are
on a par with artificial rules about _shall_ and _will_. The difference
is that since they are not established by long usage, we need not
observe them.

It occurs to me further that inclusive language is based on another
fallacy as well: the idea that changing language can change society.
Have we forgotten the inanities that S. I. Hayakawa & Co. preached
under the name of "General Semantics"?

Regards -- and please read twice before flaming

Leo A. Connolly Foreign Languages & Literatures University of Memphis
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Message 3: Re: 6.1464, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Sat, 21 Oct 1995 09:10:17 Re: 6.1464, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1464, Disc: Prescriptivism

No, Dick, quite obviously we do not ALL believe that all
varieties are equal, since otherwise we would not have linguists
being involved in prescriptive work, which is especially common
in non-English-speaking countries where it is usually linguists
who in fact did most of the work of prescription earlier
in this century, but which is also found in the English-speaking
world, where linguists have been involved in work on prescriptive
dictionaries in particular.

Thus, although the textbooks of linguistics are full of emphasis
on this notion of equality, clearly it is not as widely accepted
as one might have thought (as I, for one, thought until I
recently realized what was going on).

But in addition, it is not really clear to me that the theory
behind the idea that all varieties are equally good and that
there is no such thing as correctness is any more coherent that
the prescriptivist theories. As I have always understood it,
the anti-prescriptive theory simply holds that the ideas of
correctness (and incorrectness) and hence of inequality are
nothing more than the invention of so-called "traditional"
grammarians (i.e., those prior to structuralism and generative
grammar). But as I keep pointing out, this cannot be true
at least not if we believe Bloomfield in his "Literate and
illiterate speech", where he claims that notions of correctness
are also applicable to Menominee, which had no such grammatical
tradition (it would be interesting to know whether there is
any other evidence of notions of correctness among people
who had no grammatical tradition, in other parts of the world).

So, an anti-prescriptivist must meet the burden of explaining
this (and many other things), whereas a prescriptivist would
have to offer a better account of his/her work than has
so far been done, in light of the many critiques of prescriptivism
by linguists like Jespersen and Hall, for example.

As I see it, it may make us feel warm and fuzzy to talk about
how we merely describe and to laugh at students and others who
ask to tell them what is correct (as probably every linguisy
has been asked) or at pundits like Newman et al., but that is
not enough. At the same time, I think it is appalling that
major dictionaries, which linguists work for, peddle the
judgements of usage panels to the reading public, thus washing
their hands of the prescriptive judgements (after all, we are
only DESCRIBING what the panelists said, they seem tobe
claiming, forgetting that no one investigated the panelists'
own usage as opposed to their opinions about "correct"

So, I, for one, am looking (indeed, groping) around for a third
alternative besides conventional prescriptivism and anti-prescriptivism.

Alexis Manaster Ramer
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