Tue Jan 6 1998

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Elaine Halleck <>


  1. manaster, Re: 8.1832, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. Tim Beasley, Re: 8.1832, Disc: Prescriptivism
  3. Stirling Newberry, Re: Discussion of Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 8.1832, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 23 Dec 1997 09:34:37 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 8.1832, Disc: Prescriptivism

It is amazing to me how difficult it is to use language to
communicate. I never said that any aspect of language should
not be taught, but a number of folks are putting that in my
mouth. Actually,I do have views on this subject, but I do not
want to go into that now beyond noting that there are certainly
millions if not more of people who learn their native languages
(and smaller but no less impressive numbers who learn second,
third, etc. languages) without the help of professional
educators, thank you. As for reading and writing specifically,
the situation is more complicated but there would seem to be
cases of written languages that are learned without formal training
of the sort we take for granted. Perhaps someone who knows more
of the Hanunoo situation than I do might comment on that? But
the reason I want to stay away from this here is that this part of
the bigger question of whether professional educators in general
or at least those in cultures such as modern N. America or
modern S. Asia or whatever do more good than harm--and whether
certain particular WAYS of teaching, such as the modernways of
teaching reading in the US are better or worse than other ways.
This really is a different topic from that of prescriptivism
though not entirely unrelated to it, of course.

What I have in mind is a differnt kind of thing entirely, namely,
why in languages with final devoicing like Dutch or Polish we
should insist on forcing children to write forms with final
voiced obstruents when we know that languages like Middle Dutch
and Middle High German, for example, did very well writing things
the way they are spoken; why we insist on (in my view) wasting
so much time on "correct" spelling in English; why anybody should
invent and teach the various artificial "standard literary"
languages when the colloquial varieties are so perfectly serviceable,
and so on. I think that most of those who do not agree with me
so far are thinking of a TINY numbne of plainly silly presriptive
rules in English, forgetting about the ENORMOUS infrastructure of
prescription here and even more so in other languages which we take
for granted, being ourselves products of the educational establishments
which thrive by creating and teaching such made-up languages as
Standard English or Standard Hebrew or whatever. 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
communicte if there were not a single standard spelling (nonsense, how did
theElizabethans comunciate), 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. 

In short, much of the linguistic reality we take for granted in the
"modern" world is based on ideas and attitudes which a nonprescritivist
has to reject, in my view. But as I have pointedout before much of
this linguistic reality was created with the active help of linguists.
Moreover, it is important to point out that (pace Dick Hudson), there
IS a fundamental problem which I have so far avoided bringing up,
but which is another paradox: since millions of people do use
the prescriptivists' creations, to attack prescriptivism is to tell
people to change the way they use language--and hence it becomes
a kind of prescriptivism too! This is like the probnlem we find in
any science of human behavior: if we find, say, that the view of
sex taught for the last couple of centuries in much of the world is
based on iedas wholly at odds with what anthropology and sexology
have discovered, then we are doing more than describing how human
sexuality really works, we are inevitably implying that for example
children should not be punished for masturbating or other forms of
sex play. Same with language: if we find, as I think we must, that
most of what our cluture(s) believe about language is wrong, we do
imply certain very specific DO's and DONT's.

Which leads me to my final observation. I SUSPECT that the distinction
we have been taught between presciption and description is the wrong way
to try to capture what is different between the world of William Safire
and the linguist's idea of how language really works. There is
a distinction but nOT because the former prescribes and the latter
describes. There is much to recommend this view: for example, surely
few of us would argue that medicine is unscientific because it prescribes.
So my current gropings towards reconciling the various pardoxes lead
me to the idea that the differnece between (good) linguistics and
the dominant cultural view of lg in the modern world is not that
between description and prescription at all but is analogous to
the distinction between (idealized) medicine and quakery. Of course,
(good) lx like (good) medicine are based on accurate description
of what is (but crucially also on models of how and why, not just
what), AND (good) lx like (good) medicine teches that many things
should be left to nature and that many forms of intervention that
have traditionally been accepted are ineffective, counterproductive,
and plain cruel and stupid, and SO it becomes tempting to identify
the scientific view with description and lack of prscription, but that
is a fundamental mistake. (And of couse on this view we can make
better sense of the fact that "prescriptivists" DO make claims of des
criptive fact, usually false one--as Dick H keeps pointing out. For.
once more, description is not the sole domain of the good guys.)

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Message 2: Re: 8.1832, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Tue, 23 Dec 1997 10:36:13 -0800
From: Tim Beasley <>
Subject: Re: 8.1832, Disc: Prescriptivism

>....What is important to them, IMHO, is the right to draw lines between us
and them:
>between teachers and students, between middle-class and lower-class, ....

Yep. That's what norms are for: not just to enable communication, but
also to define group borders. Languages serve communicative (linguistic)
ends, as well as social.

Peter Rehder, some years ago, was talking to a group of Slavists at UCLA
concerning norms, definition of language (communities), and the such.
Other readings I've run across deal with language styles as a semiotic
system (language styles per se, just as hair styles and clothing). 

A couple of recent posts hit it in the head. There's the historical,
non-really-based-on-usage type of prescriptivism that we like to debunk
(not splitting infinitives, for example). Then there's the closely related
"I don't like your speech patterns" type that often employ the same
specious argumentation (such as avoiding double negatives). "X-language
only" movements fall into the latter. Ultimately all of this boils down to
a question of who's "in" the language community (and therefore the
community as a whole) and who's not in the community (and consequently
derives fewer, if any, of that society's benefits). People that prescribe
don't like saying "Do it because I say so," but that's what it boils down
to--so they make up frequently fallacious arguments.

People generally like to prescribe, not to be prescribed to. They accept
prescription when they want to belong to the prescribing group; or they
rebel against prescription if they think it's unfair. It doesn't matter
whether it's language or hair/clothing styles. Or religion. Eventually
some people may buy into the rule system to such an extent that they
eagerly follow the latest proclamations of the mavens--avoiding (or
following) "PC" terms or the latest designer fashions and hair trends. 

I figure that the reason linguists dislike current prescriptivisms are
two-fold: linguists don't always draw a clear line between the historical
and modern varieties because they follow similar lines of argumentation;
and, because we tend to be against barriers (no slight to syntacticians
intended), and prescriptivism seems to erect them. 

"Prescriptivism" as usually intended is a linguistically minor--but
politically and socially much larger--variation on the following (all
overhead by me):
- Black Student Union activists giving a potential joiner a hard time: he
spoke too "white"
- A Chicano co-worker who treated a recent immigrant from Mexico City a
hard time because she used Mexico City slang and phonology
- My brother's grandmother, an uneducated Sicilian peasant, opposing the
entrance to a senior's group of a few Calabrese: "Those damned Calabrese
don't speak Italian right."
- an ex-girlfriend spoke "NBC English" to me and the local Appalachian
English with her family; the two of us were talking, her parents walked up,
and she didn't switch codes when she addressed them. "What, aren't you a
Southerner anymore? Too good for us?"
- A friend's paper was rejected for publication largely because she
explicitly defined and used (consistently) a term at odds with a rival
"sub-school" to whom a reviewer belonged. There was an apparently
well-defined lexical social (professional?) jargon that had been defined
elsewhere six months earlier, and she ran afoul of it.

In all cases, the rule-setter's standard was their
(oops...his....oops...his or her :-) own prestige dialect, however they
(...) defined it; obeisance to those norms was necessary for belonging to
the group: Black Student Union, senior's club, the lunch crowd at work, or
"linguistics published in Journal Y". The difference between much of
Buckley's prescriptivism and the prescriptivism reflected in these
anecdotes is linguistically trivial: the linguistic features chosen are
ultimately unimportant and oral communication proceeds apace. We
frequently study the type of prescriptivism found in the anecdotes, but
reserve strong condemnation for the latter...but they're the same phenomenon.

This is a very old phenomenon, and not even primarily a linguistic one. As
long as humans draw boundaries around groups--social, political, ethnic,
racial, or professional--the psychological (political, social, economic,
etc.) fallout will continue. 

Have a nice winter break. 

Tim Beasley
grad student, UCLA
Slavic Languages
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Message 3: Re: Discussion of Prescriptivism

Date: Wed, 24 Dec 1997 16:35:42 -0400
From: Stirling Newberry <>
Subject: Re: Discussion of Prescriptivism

>Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, perhaps age is merely
>making me cynical, but of all the silly discussions we have had recently on
>the LINGUIST list, that on prescriptivism is surely the silliest. From the
>beginning I have been trying to read along dutifully, but when about a week
>ago I came to "The reasons linguistics avers persdcriptivism, is that
>prescription is the cujnction of the dat top day activities of language
>itself,..." I wondered for a moment if I were back teaching freshman
>English! This particular collocation may be the silliest I have yet noted
>in this context, but the subject of the discussion has not really been
>clear since after the initial message. By me, this made some sense, and
>Benji and Alexis have had sensible things to say on the matter since, but
>there hasn't been much else I, at least, have found to be gripping reading
>(maybe it's me).

Well I suppose if typing is the holy of holies in the subject of inquiry -
then I fail. The sentence above should read:

The reason that Linuistic avers prescriptivisim is that this is the
function of the day to day activities of language itself.

That is we tell each other how we *ought* to speak by speaking that way and
by correcting others. Yes I *ought* to type better than I do, and I suppose
it is the kind of moralisticly framed insult exampled above which *ought*
to make me want to change my ways.

However - if I am guilty of bad typing, then the above is an example of
extra-ordinarily bad thinking.

In this long running conversation we really have a collision of two very
important principles. On the one hand clarity of writing, on the ohter hand
the need for clear observation.

Anyway - I look forward to Mr. Teeter's forth coming paper on how good
typing is vastly more important than good thinking for the advancement of
lingusitic science.

Stirling Newberry
War and Romance:
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