LINGUIST List 6.1478

Sun Oct 22 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. John-Patrick Villanueva, In defense of PC (was Prescriptivism)
  2. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Prescriptivism
  3. Larry Rosenwald, prescriptivism

Message 1: In defense of PC (was Prescriptivism)

Date: Sat, 21 Oct 1995 17:45:30 In defense of PC (was Prescriptivism)
From: John-Patrick Villanueva <>
Subject: In defense of PC (was Prescriptivism)

Queridos colegas,
	I understand those of you who feel frustrated with politically
correct speech. I know what it's like to have my dialect infringed upon
by other peoples' propriety complexes.

	I urge you, however to keep separate actual "politically correct"
speech from those pretenders who try to wield it over non-native speakers.

	Politically correct speech is a register. It is not a set of
euphamisms, it is not a vocabulary list. It arose organically, like all
dialects, and is motivated by a need to be more precise about people's
sex and ethnicity, among other things.

	Seattle, Washington, where I grew up, is an exteremely diverse
place, and 'politically-correct' precision is a necessity. Take my
ethnicity, for example. "Oriental" doesn't cut it, since we Seattlites
consider ourselves Westerners; East to us would be Detroit, New York,
London, Berlin, Moscow. "Asian" doesn't do it either, since 1) neither I
nor my parents has ever set foot on the Asian continent. Besides, what
does "Asian" say, besides brown skin, black hair, and narrow eyes?
Nothing. Asia is a HUGE landmass; if we maintain that there is a lot
of cultural diversity among European nations, why consider people who live
on a continent so many times bigger to be a unit? Asian cultures have
nothing in common with each other, as little or less than European nations.
"Asian American" is a little better, because it reflects my citizenship and
a very big component of my (yes, MY) cultural heritage. However, it still
sounds like something from a police line-up. My ethnic heritage is Filipino,
but it wouldn't do me any good to be called "Fillino" because I am not.
I pay taxes to the US, I vote, I watch baseball . . . "Filipino
American" is more precise. It is my ethnic label that includes both of
my cultural heritages, as well as nationality information.

	So what are useless euphamisms to some are quite palpable
semantic distinctions to those of us who have to live the reality of a
diverse and culturally tolerant community. How can _anyone_ claim that
PC distinctions are just euphamism, especially in light of the most
famous paradigm of terms from African Americans:

African American (ethnic label)
Afro-American (ethnic lablel, not the community's choice)
Black American (racial lablel, refering to skin color)
Negro (hypothetical race term--same paradigm as the ridiculous
	"Caucasian" and "Mongoloid")
the N-word (highly charged despective, recently reclaimed by some members
	of the community)

The differences between these labels are extremely salient to those of us
who must use them.

	However, there are some who try to be PC who are NOT native speakers,
who do NOT know the motivations, who CANNOT make the distintions, which
is why it sounds foolish coming from non native speakers.

	I realize the original argument about PC was in terms of gender
lablels which may or may not correspond to a person's sex. In my
dialect, it does not sound awkward or funny to say "she/he" or "him or
her" for the hypothetical third person singular. However, that is my
dialect. If your dialect does not make the same distiction, and you are
not sexist, then there is no reason you should be percieved as sexist.
Simply tell your listeners (when they ask) that you are simply speaking
your dialect, and to back off. You're the linguist, for goodness sake!
When people try to get me to say "Jack and I" instead of "me and Jack",
I tell them "I'm not speaking that dialect, take it easy." If they
pursue, they get a lecture on dialectal diversity. If they are still not
satisfied, they learn all about conjuntion phrases and case assignment.
That's why we have the big degrees, isn't it?

There is no reason for one person to impose his/her dialect upon someone
else, even (especially!) if it's a PC dialect. PC is about respect for
other peoples' differences reflected in lexical terms, INCLUDING dialect
differences. Real, bona fide native PC speech should be regarded as a
dialect, and the distinctions are as real (and often as hard to learn) as
any other semantic dichotomies, like for example Indicative vs.
Subjunctive in French or Imperfect vs. Preterite in Spanish.

And for those that _want_ to learn/acquire a PC dialect? The first rule
of PC is to ASK what people want to be called, do not label them. ASK
female chairperson how she would like to be addressed. ASK your new
Asian friend what her ethnicity is, before you make a fool of yourself
talking about Korean food. ASK which label your African American
supervisor which label she is most comfortable with--maybe it's not the
ethnic label--you won't know unless you ask.

Asking how people like to identify themselves shows respect, it also
gives you the advantage by being "correct" 100% of the time. Speaking on
behalf of those of us who were once labled by the color of our skin and
the shape of our eyes, PC lables are _much_ more empowering and sound
_much_ more appropriate. But remembember, it's a dialectal choice. Just
like British "loo" sounds ridiculous to many Americans, PC words like
"s/he" are not appropriate in some dialectal contexts.

And remember too, that there are greater things in life than pronouns and
ethnic-labels. Have a good day, everyone!--jpv

				 John-Patrick Villanueva <>
<><The White Man will never be alone. Let him be just and deal kindly<><
><>with my people, for the dead are not powerless." --Chief Seattle ><>
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Prescriptivism

Date: Sat, 21 Oct 1995 16:42:20 Prescriptivism
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Prescriptivism

I do not think it is adequate to say that prescriptive linguists
is the same thing as (or if not at least should be replaced merely
by) descriptive work on the different social varieties of any
given language. This idea, which has been articulated in print
by the Polish linguist Manczak, strikes me as inadequate for
a couple of reasons. First, correctness is not the same thing
as the actual usage of, say, the richest people in any given
society (and not all societies are stratified by wealth either).
Nor is it clear that what is perceived as correct usage is the
usage of any social class at all, since in many cases it maybe
usage which no one outside of professional language experts
actually follows (and which maybe even they do not). In some
societies the whole point of correct linguistic usage appears
to be to make EVERYBODY feel bad about their own usage or nearly
everybody (Israeli Hebrew seems to be a rather case of this,
although there may be some features of this is the American
English case and elsewhere). That is, what is held to be correct
in some sense would sound ridiculous if actually used in normal
speech in such societies. Another reason, which is particulalry
clear ifwe consider Bloomfield's description of the situation
in Menominee, is that when it comes to language correctness, it
may often be individual differences which are more important th
an social ones, or at least as important. Finally,to the extent
that a society relies on published works such as grammars and
dictionaries to define what is correct, it becomes very difficult
to publish descriptive work which is not liable to itself
interfere with these definitions, unless indeed we require
linguists to avoid publishing anything on language that could
be accessiblle to the wider public. It is this latter dilemma,
to which I see no solution, which I suspect is one of the reasons
why linguists officially preach antiprescriptivism yet find it
difficult to refuse an offer from a publisher of a major dictionary
say to do work which inevitably gets them involved in the prescription
industry. Moreover, even works by linguists which denounce certain
kinds (or all kinds) of prescriptivism, if they are widely read
(e.g., Pinker's works) inevitably have an effect on their readers'
ideas of correctness. Unless I am much mistaken, there are numerous
people who after reading such stuff become more tolerant of "hopefully"
for example, without at the same time really giving up on the notion
of correctness (which I suspect we are culturally or even perhaps
biologically unable to give up on). So all that happens is that
we help shift the norm on some one point or another, which it is
not clear whether it should be a linguist's job to do anyway.

So I think the problem is much more fundamental.

Alexis MR

P.S. So-called political correctness is an interesting topic, but
I question whether it is really the same topic (plus it is one
which as we have seen before seems to elicit more in the way of
emotional response on BOTH sides, so I for one do not want to get
drawn into it).
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: prescriptivism

Date: Sun, 22 Oct 1995 10:56:00 prescriptivism
Subject: prescriptivism

	I've been following this discussion with a lot of interest, and I'd
like to put a couple of questions.
	1) A while back, someone brought up the case of learning a second
language, as an example of a situation where prescriptivism is in order,
or, more precisely, where it seems that the prescriptive authority of
the teacher over the student rests on solid ground. This led me to wonder
whether it's possible to specify when, exactly, second-language learners
attain the status, individually or collectively, in which their
utterances, too, become simply "usage." Or maybe, when _and where_? Take
this Yiddish-influenced sentence by Anzia Yezierska, from _Bread Givers_ :
"From always it was heavy on my heart the worries of the house as if I was
mother." In some cases - in a class for learning English on the lower East
Side in 1910, say - this is subject to correction. But is it equally
subject to correction if the speaker is an esteemed woman of letters and
Hollywood script- writer, as Yezierska was, and deliberately retains
certain Yiddishisms? Is it equally subject to correction if a community
of native speakers of English retains Yiddishisms of this sort?
	As some of you know, I've posted some queries about the
representation of linguistic variety in American literature, and questions
of this sort come up a lot in relation to fiction that depicts immigrant
speech; it's often very hard to judge such speech, hard to distinguish,
that is, between second-language interference and an emerging authentic
speech variety.
	2) I teach in an English department, and often teach writing
courses. My students never ask me what the basis of my authority is; but
if they did, I think I'd have to make an argument that's analogous to the
learning-a-second-language argument, namely, that I speak (i.e., am a
competent user of) the language of academic prose, that they are
imperfectly competent users of that language, and my business is to teach
them how to use that language better. I'm aware that this is a shaky
analogy - partly because, as Leo Connolly points out, "language" in this
sense includes rhetoric. I'm wondering what other sorts of argument
people use when they're actually functioning as prescriptivists and need to
justify their authority.
	Best, Larry Rosenwald
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue