LINGUIST List 6.1489

Mon Oct 23 1995

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. benji wald , Re: 6.1478, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. Richard Hudson, prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 6.1478, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Sun, 22 Oct 1995 18:17:00 Re: 6.1478, Disc: Prescriptivism
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 6.1478, Disc: Prescriptivism

John-Patrick's message in "defence" of politically correct (PC) speech
gave me pause, because I hadn't really considered it or phenomena like
it in my concept of prescriptivism as a sociolinguistic universal.
And it doesn't fit in with my characterisation of the concept as a
type of language which divides social groups in a society to the
extent that they have access to the norms that are considered
"correct". I did notice that some postings mentioned PC speech
earlier, and that was what J-P was responding to, but I thought they
were peevish and they didn't affect my thinking. However, when J-P
talked about "register" in characterising PC speech, I paused to
consider precriptivism in that light.

All speakers have various registers. The different registers are
supposed to indicate different degrees of "formality", and thus signal
something about the occasion of discourse, e.g., "cop" vs. "officer"
( if we can agree that "cop" is not "slang" in any useful sense, but a
colloquialism of a less formal register, like "guy" for "man").
Certainly the most formal register fits in with a speaker's notion of
what is prescriptively "correct". However, the attitude of
prescriptivism is "ALWAYS say X, NEVER say Y" (where X = Y
referentially, or whatever). The attitude of register is "say X or Y
depending on which is APPROPRIATE to the occasion" (e.g., "don't talk
UP or DOWN but on the right level."

J-P's characterisation of PC seems to be that it is part of the
register attitude, not the categorical prescriptive attitude. I've
noticed that people do indeed behave as if PC were register, but then
they also behave as if all prescribed norms are register. The issue
remains attitude. If PC is recognised as register then speakers don't
BELIEVE that they should always say X (PC) and never say Y, but that
they should only say X on certain occasions, no doubt public occasion,
particularly when outsiders are around.

I suspect this is the attitude toward PC speech. It is not the
attitude toward general prescriptive speech, despite the fact that
both PC and prescriptive speech (the ones consisting of what is often
called "prestige norms") both tend to be labeled "correct" (in
English). In fact, I think that it is precisely the term
"politically" that signals a register attitude, because it calls
attention to the fact that the speaker is being "political", i.e.,
following a recommended diplomacy in order to acknowledge a set of
NON-LINGUISTIC beliefs underlying the use of PC terms. A speaker is,
of course, aware that s/he does not have to, and would not choose to,
always speak politically. Acknowledgment of prescriptive norms, as
(socio)linguists generally use the term, does not necessarily contain
this awareness. Recall, for example, Labov's discovery that speakers
(apparently genuinely) are often not aware of how they speak when they
are not paying much attention to how they speak -- and use norms that
they stigmatise, but do not know that they use them.

I think, then, that Alexis is basically right in questioning whether
things like PC are really what we meant when we started to talk about
prescriptivism -- but I think that the fact that the difference is in
attitude, not in actual behavior, is interesting and needs to be made
explicit. More can be said about the relationship between register
and prescriptivism, but I think my characterisation of the difference
is (more or less) accurate. Of course, I welcome criticism, because
there are other things I have not mentioned that could be considered.

By the way, a thought about Bloomfield's characterisation of Menominee
sense of "good" and "bad" language. In retrospect, and without
disrespect, I thought Bloomfield's discussion was naive and murky, not
necessarily on his part, but in considering the major point to be that
a language does not have to have a literate tradition in order to
recognise "good" and "bad". That issue would occur to a linguist who
is used to dealing with linguists who deal with written languages, not
to a street linguist like me, who deals with spoken language and the
beliefs of the speakers. So he may have had to make the point in
response to something some of colleagues may have believed or said.
It is murky, because as Alexis pointed out, it seems to have to do
with rhetoric, and, as I remember, even "knowledge" of the language,
in the sense that most speakers were bilingual and language shift was
at issue. This complicates the issue to the point that the theory to
deal with it is somewhat lacking -- remember what was said earlier
about foreign language teaching, a parallel problem of "incomplete
acquisition" -- and, for that matter, we may consider "correction" (of
various sorts) in FIRST language acquisition. It is murky because it
focusses on individual speakers, and is not precise about what is
correct and what is incorrect, but only on the fact that such notions
exist even though the language does not have a literate tradition.

I relate to the Bloomfield's Menominee example in what I would take to
be a true example of prescriptivism in the following example. The
East African language Digo is becoming increasingly influenced by
Swahili. Older Digos criticise younger Digos language according to
the Swahili vs. Digo lexicon that the latter use in their talk. The
prescribed norms, then, for older speakers, are older norms of Digo.
The stigmatised norms are newer norms of Swahili origin, and they are
precise, mainly lexical but also some grammatical constructions of
(probable) Swahili origin. This is not rhetoric or individual
differences. It is linguistic change, and, in fact, there is NO
language shift to Swahili, just bilingualism, and maybe also
age-grading (I'm not sure about this last point -- it would take
another cycle of fieldwork). Very important to the notion of a
general community prescriptivism is that younger speakers accept, in
their ATTITUDES, the judgments of their elders. So they agree that
they don't speak Digo "correctly". This in fact is typical of most
East African language communities, deference to elders in language

My suspicion is that there may be a difference between literate and
non-literate societies in terms of what is the target of prescription.
In non-literate societies, regardless of whether they are bilingual or
not, it may be that linguistic changes, i.e., innovations, to the
extent they are noticed, may be the forms which get stigmatised,
elders or some group of them being the accepted authorities on
"correct" language. In literate societies, which tend to be more
complex anyway, there is a separate literate tradition which can be
drawn upon and which can give "correctness" to INNOVATIONS (from
literate sources) and stigmatise older forms. The example of the
stigmatisation of the "double negative" on the basis of Latinisation
in the history of literate English comes to mind. The Latinate
negation was innovative in English, but dismissed the older norm as
"incorrect" (I think because Latin became the grammatical model for
written English, because it had a "grammar", and because having a
grammar meant that it was "logical" and logic makes people think
right). The literate tradition is really a superstrate on a set of
prescriptive beliefs that exist in ALL societies. As the Latinisation
example shows, it is a separate tradition that can be transferred from
one language (e.g., literary Latin) to another (e.g., literary
English), in part. Frowning on the Scandinavian-English tradition of
preposition stranding in relative clauses etc. may also come from the
Latinate tradition, i.e., saying "the thing about which I'm talking"
instead of "the thing I'm talking about".

I apologise for the length of this message. But I thought it might be
helpful -- and if I don't write it for the list I may never get it
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 23 Oct 1995 11:37:43 prescriptivism
From: Richard Hudson <>
Subject: prescriptivism

Let's consider a concrete example of prescriptivism, the one raised by
Leo Connolly:

(1) Me and you can do it.

For Leo this is on a par with 2+2=5, i.e. (presumably) simply wrong;
on the other hand, he also makes the disclaimer that: `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.' These views seem to me to

I thought linguists would generally agree that our job is to describe
and explain actual usage (whether seen as I-language or E-language -
thats' a separate issue), and to make it clear whose usage is in
question. What's good for one good group of speakers is bad for
another. THEREFORE (here comes the crunch), for speakers who use (1),
(2) is actually WRONG:

(2) You and I can do it.

The question of how this scholarly view relates to practice in schools
or in dictionary-writing is an interesting and important one; but it's
separate from what we, as linguists, believe. The main question for us
linguists is how we describe non-standard forms: do we say they are
wrong (i.e. bad standard), or do we say they are right (i.e. good
non-standard)? I don't think it's a very difficult question to answer.
Prof Richard Hudson Tel: +44 171 387 7050 ext 3152
Dept. of Phonetics and Linguistics Tel: +44 171 380 7172
 Fax: +44 171 383 4108
Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue