LINGUIST List 8.1764

Tue Dec 9 1997

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <elainelinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Dick Hudson, prescriptivism
  2. Thomas E. Payne, Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Joseph Goldberg, Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism
  4. bwald, Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 08 Dec 1997 11:57:51 +0000
From: Dick Hudson <dicklinguistics.ucl.ac.uk>
Subject: prescriptivism

I think both Alexis Manaster Ramer and Scott Stirling are missing a
fundamental point. Scott says:

 I think it should be pointed out that there is no linguistic or
 otherwise scientific argument against prescriptivism. 

The most important argument against prescriptivism is simply that
descriptivism is possible - that it is possible to study language as it
actually is, rather than as we might wish it to be. Prescriptivism is pure
dogma, which can only exist in the absence of an alternative. It says that
infinitives should not be split, but gives no reason or evidence.
Descriptivists say that infinitives are split every day, and can produce
evidence by the lorry-load. 

Saying that there's no linguistic or otherwise scientific argument against
prescriptivism is like saying there's no scientific argument against
alchemy. Once proper chemistry exists, alchemy is unnecessary. Of course
language is different from chemistry because any language is itself a set of
social prescriptions; but those prescriptions are facts, unlike the ones
invented by prescriptivists. 

What's wrong with prescriptivism is that its supposed facts are just
inventions. 

Scott also says:

 I think linguists should face the fact that as scientists they have no
more authority or reason to claim that all languages must be treated
equally than does a geneticist to say that all people should be treated
equally. 

Linguists don't say that they should be treated equally. What we say is that
from the point of view of structure, they *are* equal. The jump to equality
of treatment is an ethical one, not based on science. But at least it's
based on true beliefs, which is not the case for the converse ethic of
prescriptivists.

===============================================================================
Richard (=Dick) Hudson
Department of Phonetics and Linguistics,
University College London,
Gower Street,
London WC1E 6BT
work phone: +171 419 3152; work fax: +171 383 4108
email: dickling.ucl.ac.uk
web-sites:
 home page = http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/home.htm
 unpublished papers available by ftp = ....uk/home/dick/papers.htm
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Message 2: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 8 Dec 1997 08:32:41 -0600 (CST)
From: Thomas E. Payne <tpaynecariari.ucr.ac.cr>
Subject: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

I disagree with Scott Stirling. I think there are linguistic/scientific
arguments against prescriptivism. What immediately comes to mind is the
fact that all languages change, yet human communication has not been
reduced to grunts and growls. If, as many prescriptivists claim overtly or
implicity, language change is equivalent to "degradation," then no one
should be able to communicate at all by now. 

Tom Payne
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Message 3: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 8 Dec 1997 09:15:39 -0600
From: Joseph Goldberg <goldbergukraine.corp.mot.com>
Subject: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

>I think it should be pointed out that there is no linguistic or
otherwise scientific argument against prescriptivism. Linguists tend to
make arguments from authority that presciptivism is bad or wrong, without
realizing that they are making an ethical or otherwise philsophical point.
While prescriptivists often misunderstand or are just ignorant of the
linguistic facts, linguists are just as ignorant about the types of value
judgements they make proscribing prescriptivism. I think linguists should
face the fact that as scientists they have no more authority or reason to
claim that all languages must be treated equally than does a geneticist to
say that all people should be treated equally. The realms of scientific
fact and social prescriptivism are quite different; linguists are just as
likely to misrepresent a social value as a scientific truth as are
prescriptivists.


The best scientific argument against prescriptivism is to define it as
"an attempt radically to change language, about the origins of and
reasons for which its proponents are unconcerned." If that's not
science by itself, it's at least empirical data that English
prescriptivism can easily result in indigestible English.

Joseph Goldberg
Research Phonetics
Motorola Speech Synthesis and Machine Learning Laboratorie
Schaumburg, IL
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Message 4: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 8 Dec 1997 14:55:17 -0800 (PST)
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

A. Manaster Ramer writes:

>.... a number of distinguishied linguists have been involved
>over the years with the publication of essentially prescriptive
>works, such as dictionaries, both in the English-speaking world
>(where this might be least expected) and even more so in other
>places (where linguists' jobs are to a large extent defined as
>to include work on defining what the standard language should be).
>This is perhaps THE major obstacle to taking seriously the idea
>that linguistics is really dedicated to doing away with prescriptivism.

The subtleties of Alexis's observations call for comment. The first is
that it is a misunderstanding to suppose that linguistics is "dedicated" to
"doing away with prescriptivism", *except in its own field*, where it is as
necessary to linguistic science as doing away with metaphysics has been to
the physical sciences. (Actually, it's even more necessary to linguistic
science, since experimental science checks metaphysical tendencies in
physical sciences. But what kind of linguistics could adopt Sr Isaac
Newton's motto "I make no hypotheses", by which he meant he only describes
what is "obvious" from experiments, i.e., empirical observation? That's
difficult in linguistics because it is the study of ourselves, and we
experience a paradoxically observable and unobservable mental life, which
includes literal *INsight* into language, and a "feeling in our bones" --
that our analysis is right) Any further dedication to "doing away with
prescriptivism" would require political activism (or something like that),
and is independent of the linguistic enterprise, even though the social
injustices caused by various forms of blind prescriptivism certainly spur
many individual linguists to venture into the public arena in order to
relieve their frustration, bid for the social relevance of their
discipline, and, if possible, use their expertise and authority to do some
social good.

Most importantly, the kinds of advisory capacities to dictionaries and
such, by which linguists seek to augment their incomes, are in no way signs
of complicity (or duplicity?) in the tyranny of prescriptivism. This is
because the standard language of the dictionaries, no less than any other
form of language, is susceptible to rational analysis (even though by its
genesis and social function the standard is a different kind of animal from
"normal" languages). Thus, to the extent that linguists have experience in
rational analysis of language, and, given the evidence of their own use of
the written standard, have some familiarity with it, they are competent to
advise dictionary publishers, e.g., in such matters as how to alphabetize
phrasal verbs, etc. (not to mention marking parts of speech, and supplying
etymologies and Indo-European or whatever roots). In a way, their role in
making the standard language available does not directly involve
prescriptivism, but is analogous to the relation between the religious and
secular authorities in Medieval Europe (among other places). Like the
religious authorities they can use their learning of doctrine to determine
if a heresy has been committed. That doctrine is universal, immutable and
independent of the State. However, once they have arrived at a conclusion,
they must turn the defendant over to the secular authorities who are an
independent body and alone have the right to determine an appropriate
course of action, whether it be persecution, execution, electrocution or
elocution. Likewise, the linguistic authorities can advise on what is
standard and should go in the dictionary, but only the Board of Rules of
Scrabble can decide whether to eject a player from the game for the crime
of persisting in inventing ad hoc and fantastic(al) words that ain't in the
dictionary.

P.S. Alexis's point becomes most interesting in the role of some linguists
in the relation of "prescriptivism" to *linguistic engineering* of a
standard, where none existed before. This is part of "modern state
building", and involves a tremendous amount of social consideration, having
nothing to do with internal analysis of the "language". For example, in
some cases, determined by sociopolitical considerations, a word will be
recommended for the standard because it is used with a particular meaning
in varieties (considered for contribution to the standard) spoken by 90% of
the population, rather than 1% of the population. This is not necessarily
a bad (or unjust) thing, though 1% of the population may disagree. I think
that Alexis's comments serve to alert us to the ambiguities of what we mean
by "prescriptivism". Is it the same as "(the process of) standardization"?
Is there a social angle to this problem, e.g., that "standardization" is
done autocratically by a small group, e.g., linguists and the people who
pay them, rather than democratically by a referendum (in which the affected
population votes for one out of a list of candidates -- for each word?)


- Benji
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