LINGUIST List 9.47

Tue Jan 13 1998

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <>


  1. George Elgin,Suzette Haden Elgin, Re: Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. Marie C. Egan, Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Gethsemani, Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 6 Jan 1998 08:33:34 -0500
From: George Elgin,Suzette Haden Elgin <>
Subject: Re: Disc: Prescriptivism

 Recently there've been postings to this discussion proposing
that the real purpose of prescriptivism is to preserve and promote
"the right to draw lines between us and them."

 Having been mostly a member of "them," most of my life,
including being a high school foreign language teacher, I would like
to bring up just one issue here. I understand the reaction of dismay
when teachers refuse even to discuss these matters. I know how I felt
about the administrator who told me I'd be fired if I didn't stop
*explaining* things to the students in my foreign language classes
instead of teaching them the garbage that was in the textbook. Teach
to the test or get out, he said, and I didn't admire him for
it. However, I think we have to consider how and why such attitudes
arise and persist as they do.

 Suppose that when you got to elementary school and had to do
math for the first time the teachers all insisted that two and two are
five, except when the outside temperature falls below 37 degrees -- in
which case two and two are, temporarily, six. This would never work in
the outside world; when you divided up candy with your friends you
would have to do it based on the rule you knew to be the truth: that
two and two are four. Always. But if you tried to use that on a test,
you flunked; if you argued about it, you were punished; and the only
way you could get promoted to the next grade in school was to write
"Two and two are five, except, etc." Suppose this sort of thing went
on year after year, and the people who -- unlike you -- refused to
knuckle under and memorize the nonsense got kept back, barely squeaked
through high school, couldn't pass the SAT and get into college --
ended up being permanently part of "them," in other words. Suppose,
having survived being educated, you found yourself hired to do this
same number to *your* students for the rest of your working life. I
ask you: would *you* be willing to discuss this issue? Would you want
to be forced to admit that you'd devoted much of your life to
memorizing nonsense and were now making your living teaching nonsense
to yet another generation of children? I don't think so.

 "Language" teachers outside the most prestigious university
departments are in an impossible ethical quandary. They can stand
before their classes every day and teach what they know to be
nonsense, and live with what that does to their minds and spirits; or
they can flat-out refuse to even *look* at anything that might force
them into that position, in order to stay sane. To be able to wave
books and articles that enshrine the nonsense is a help to them. For sure.

 Meanwhile, most linguists -- with very good reason -- staunchly
refuse to take on this horrible mess. I understand that, and I don't
blame them. But I don't think it would hurt to acknowledge that as
long as we *don't* take it on, it will only grow ever more
ossified. And I don't think it would hurt to acknowledge that
"academic freedom" is a luxury most teachers outside the ivory towers
can only dream about.

 Suzette Haden Elgin

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Message 2: Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 6 Jan 1998 17:37:25 EST5EDT
From: Marie C. Egan <>
Subject: Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

> To me, the whole point of opposing prescriptivism must be not to merely 
> fight against a few minor irritants which most people recognize as silly but
> against the whole theory and practice of standardization, suppresion of
> dialects, invention of artificial systems of grammar, spelling, etc.,
> and the underlying ideas which hold that, for example, we could not
> communicate if there were not a single standard spelling (nonsense, how did
> the Elizabethans comunicate), a standard pronunciations (nonsense, how does
> English, the wodl's most successful langueg work so well?), a single
> stanard dialect (nonsen again, see Siwtzerland or Ancient Greece),
> and so on.
 Alexis gave arguments against a standard. However, there are 
certainly arguments from efficiency for having a standard language 
which people can switch to when they need to communicate with 

 Since I've moved to South Carolina from the midwest 
I've had several embarrassing occassions where I couldn't understand 
at all what someone was saying to me, but they were able to 
understand me. But I've had no problems reading street signs, the 
newspaper, church bulletins, student papers, etc. because they are 
written (more or less) in standard English. I'm not picking on 
obscure South Carolina dialects; I'm sure there are many English 
dialects that I would also have trouble understanding. But the closer 
I and a stranger can each come to talking like radio and TV 
announcers (which seems to be the functional standard spoken 
English), or the closer our writing is to standard written English, 
the better we will be able to communicate. Am I the only one who has 
been frustrated by sections of dialogue in novels when the 
dialogue was written with non-standard spelling in non-standard 
dialects (in particular, rural dialects from previous centuries and 
other English-speaking countries)?

 Note that I'm not arguing people can never understand 
non-standard communication because e-mail typos, for example, rarely 
cause complete breakdown, just that such understanding will require 
additional work and in _some_ situations is not possible. It's a lot 
less work for each person to learn a standard in addition to their 
own dialect(s) than it is for each person to learn all the dialects 
of everyone they may want to communicate with at some later point. 
In school, before we read Chaucer and Shakespeare, we were given 
explicit instruction in their dialects. Those authors were worth the 
effort. I'm not arrogant enough to claim that I am, so I try to write 
close to the standard when communicating with broad audiences (like 
when I post e-mails to list-serves) and am much less careful when 
sending e-mail to my family.

 Getting back to Alexis' examples, while Switzerland does not have 
a single standard language, it is my understanding that their school 
system is specifically designed to prevent monolingual speakers so 
that the Swiss will be able to communicate with each other. Ancient 
Greece did not have a standard dialect, being a set of independent 
city-states speaking related dialects who all competed in the 
Olympic Games and worshipped the same gods. I'm not sure how much 
they really cared about being able to communicate with one another 
easily. But when I took ancient Greek, I found the dialectal 
differences much easier to deal with than the different vocabularies 
used in/by different genres/authors (I didn't study it long enough 
for the to unconfound the two). 

 I am willing to admit that not everyone who teaches or advocates a 
standard does so for my reasons. Had I been taught in some of the 
ways which have been described in previous posts on this list, I 
might well have rebelled against using standard English. But is that 
a problem with having a language standard, or is that a problem with 
the way it is taught?

Marie Egan
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Message 3: Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 7 Jan 1998 01:06:46 EST
From: Gethsemani <>
Subject: Re: 9.8, Disc: Prescriptivism

Prescriptivist views might be likened to "medicine," because the use of
"medicine" implies that there's a condition of illness that needs to be
improved and be made "healthy." Since language is not a thing that
deteriorates to a condition of being inherently unhealthy or of needing
improvement, linguists should not use the term "medicine" because of Lakoff's
principle of metaphors highlighting and hiding....and "medicine," when applied
to linguistic description, hides the implication of needing improvement. 

Standardization, at the outset, at least, doesn't simply arise from invention
of a prescriptivist kind, but arises from the process of common usage, albeit
eventually sanctioned by the prestige group (who in turn are supported by the
prescriptivists over time). Sheer invention might be more closely associated
with spelling (such as disseminated by printers of the Middle Ages), than with
vocabulary. Even then, there is little indication that printers were
prescriptivist; they seemed to operate out of a call to practicality, a call
which I find strikingly similar to those inventors of words whose language we
describe, and which may someday be "standard." I find it a source of amusement
that educated people who object to what is presently considered "colloquial"
and slang forms in writing readily accept as "proper" English the slang terms
of yesteryear (and of course, they've no idea that so many of the words they
consider proper "arose" out of the "gutter" into the mouths and onto the paper
of educated folk generations later). In this way, dialects are not completely
suppressed; at least, after many years, no one can stop the unstoppable
quality of a living language: it is, by default, inclusive without dependency
on invention, but with what is probably best termed "convention." 

I'm not so sure I'd go so far as to say that correct spelling is a waste of
time. It is possible that people who spend a lot of time studying it when they
just don't have the knack of it and others who worry about spelling more than
other aspects of communication might be wasting their time. When I study
another language, I think it is more practical to be able to spell the words
the way the natives do because the variant that I might default to might be so
different that people won't understand me or I might unwittingly use a form
that means something else. Perhaps that wouldn't happen in one's native
language, but I'm sure that the individualized form would slow down the
reader, who needs the standardized form to grasp in a split second the
meaning. There must be research that can illuminate the timing issue. 

In the end, I think the issue is not to change/not change spelling. I think
the issue for linguists is to try to change attitudes about spelling, and
language in general. The average educated speaker thinks it is a holy
achievement to be a good speller and thinks perhaps unconsciously, that
misspellings are the sign of an underachiever or lack of intelligence. The
average person hears terms like "Vulgar" Latin and "perfect" tense and
succumbs to all the petty connotations. If linguists continue to argue in the
insular world of journals, etc., they give up the fight to the prescriptivists
and allow the mistaken views to continue, forever irritating. We should be
launching into unheard-of territory: that of the Safires and the Buckleys.
Who are they, anyway? They are no linguists!!
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