LINGUIST List 9.131

Wed Jan 28 1998

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <>


  1. PBarr21106, Prescriptivism
  2. RNelsonjr, Re: 9.89, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Earl Herrick, prescriptivism

Message 1: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 22 Jan 1998 00:31:50 EST
From: PBarr21106 <>
Subject: Prescriptivism

Maybe I did not read every post on prescriptivism. I do not recall ever seeing
anything in writing that indicated the whole thing, by which I guess Michael
Newman means prescriptivism, is considered a farce. Nor have I seen in print
anywhere the notion that standards serve no indispensable functional purpose;
but then I don't read far Left journals that often. I would need some
citations where this position has been voiced loudly and to little effect for
many years. In my post, I certainly did not imply that a standard was merely
one dialect. I teach the old saying that a language is just a dialect with an
army and a navy to drive home the point that all forms of language are a
dialect when put in a context. I also teach how we arrive at the Standard
English forms we use in public discourse, which involves a lot of elaboration
that most dialects do not undergo (some do, of course, but then those are
often described as regional languages rather than regional dialects; it IS all
political rather than scientific). The point is not that Standard forms should
not be taught but that those teaching them should not imbue them with some
sort of false superiority through specious appeals to logic and sonority, nor
should they denigrate nonstandard speech forms. When this IS done, it usually
has a strong basis in class, racial, national, ethnic and other social group
distinctions. Pat Barrett
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Message 2: Re: 9.89, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 22 Jan 1998 01:20:17 EST
From: RNelsonjr <>
Subject: Re: 9.89, Disc: Prescriptivism

I'm sorry, sir. I meant nothing so ambitious as the establishment of a
national, linguistic norm. I was just worried about a few kids not
understanding the difference between 'correct' and 'incorrect' English. I'd
like for them to understand that that corrections they receive in K-12 grades
are not because they are wrong or flawed internally, but because, later in
life, they will be discriminated against if they ignore the speaking/writing
modes of the controlling classes.
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Message 3: prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 27 Jan 1998 16:39:02
From: Earl Herrick <>
Subject: prescriptivism

RNelsonJr (1/17/98) makes the point that I always try to make with the
students in my undergraduate introductory linguistics course, most of whom
are would-be teachers who have never heard of linguistics and who only know
about language the unsystematic, prescriptive, and usually prohibitory
snippets they happen to have picked up from some of their own teachers.

As our structuralist ancestors rightly said, "All dialects are equally
good." But as George Orwell might have added, "Some dialects are more equal
than others." All dialects are equally good in that they are all capable of
communicating the denotative content of any utterance. But any dialect also
communicates connotative facts about itself that make the hearers of an
utterance decide whether they want to listen to it and respect it. (That's
why a "standard dialect" is also called a "prestige dialect". "Prestige"
comes from a Latin etymon that means, among other things, "to run a
confidence game". You have prestige if you can con other people to thinking
that you are as good as or better than they are, so that they will feel
they have to listen to you.)

As teachers of linguistics, I think we have two concurrent jobs. One is our
real, professional job as linguists: to analyze languages. Doing so, we can
make an analysis of any dialect, and when we do so we are *descriptivists*
who are describing that dialect. We have no need to say (in fact, as
descriptivists, it would be irrelevant for us to say) anything about when,
where, or why someone might or might not want to speak or write that dialect. 

But there is another job out there: telling people how to get ahead in the
world. It isn't our main job, but we are the experts in the material that
it involves, and if it is to be done, we are the people best prepared to do
it. (The metaphor for this, as I tell my students, is that, if there is a
market for dress-for-success books, then the faculty in the
textiles-and-fashion part of the Home Ec department are the experts who can
best write those books. They know the details, such as just how to find a
$300 suit that everybody else will think cost you $800.)

Giving people advice on how to get ahead in the world is a legitimate
occupation, and various people try to do it with respect to language. Some
of these people have actually thought about language, but most of them are
"language mavens" of the kind who have never thought about language, but
who just try to pass on the unsystematic and usually prohibitory snippets
about language that they themselves happen to have picked up.

So should we linguists be *prescriptivists*? I think it is all right some
of us to do so in a very specific way, but we have to be clear in our own
minds what we are doing, and we have to clearly tell those who learn from
us what we are doing. What we are prescribing is not how one *ought to*
speak and write, but how one is *well advised to* do so if one wants to get
ahead in the world. Teaching someone a standard dialect and telling that
person to use it if he or she wants to get ahead in the world is morally as
neutral and just as practical as saying to somebody, "When you go in next
week for your interview for that beginning management-track job, don't wear
those blue jeans you're wearing now, and don't wear that outfit you bought
last week that your friends think is so 'cool'. Those clothes will keep you
warm and decent, but they'll be a turn-off for the people you're trying to
get the job from. Here's a dress-for-success pamphlet. Go down and buy
yourself something that *it* says will make you look good to the people
you're trying to impress."
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