LINGUIST List 9.89

Tue Jan 20 1998

Disc: Prescriptivism

Editor for this issue: Anita Huang <>


  1. Jameela Ann Lares, Re: 9.60, Disc: Prescriptivism
  2. Michael Newman, prescriptivism
  3. Jeff MacSwan, Re: 9.68, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 9.60, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 15 Jan 1998 12:29:28 -0600 (CST)
From: Jameela Ann Lares <>
Subject: Re: 9.60, Disc: Prescriptivism

I second Richard H. Wojcik's 1/14 post vs. "prescription that linguistic
communities ought not to prescribe."

It's a firm and longstanding principle in rhetoric that the speaker/writer
must present him/herself as knowledgeable in order to gain the confidence
of the audience, and this requirement extends to knowledge about
conventions of discourse. 

It would, of course, be preferable for teachers explicitly to inculcate
such a sense of audience and convention instead of teaching that
individual usages are always right or always wrong. 

Jameela Lares
Department of English
University of Southern Mississippi
Hattiesburg, MS 39406
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Message 2: prescriptivism

Date: Fri, 16 Jan 1998 14:09:10 -0500
From: Michael Newman <>
Subject: prescriptivism

I get the impression that underlying some of the comments on presciptivism
broadly understood (that is insisting on language standards rather than
just following specific bugaboos) there is a notion that if only we
explained clearly enough and fought hard enough we could expose the whole
thing as a farse designed to maintain certain social hierarchies. This
position assumes that standard languages are dialects and standards really
serve no indispensible functional purpose. The fact that this position has
been voiced loudly and to little effect for many years, and that it has
garnered little sympathy even anong the left outside narrow academic
constituencies should argue for a reexamining of the premises. The fact
that the very polemics are written inevitably in standard language (as has
been pointed out before) is also evidence that something is amiss.

Let me therefore make this proposal: the importance of standard language
becomes apparent when we remember that language varies not only by social
group/dialect but also by text type/register. If we see SL not as a
dialect but as a register or as much as a register as as a dialect, then
the source of its power as a social barrier as well as its inevitability
becomes clear. Certain texts must be written or spoken in SLs to be taken
as bona fide members of their genre.

Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
Dept. of Linguistics and Communications Disorders
Queens College/CUNY
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Message 3: Re: 9.68, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 19 Jan 1998 16:02:06 -0800
From: Jeff MacSwan <>
Subject: Re: 9.68, Disc: Prescriptivism

At 04:10 PM 1/16/98 +0000, RNelsonjr <> wrote:
>there should be a norm. but the people being pushed/pulled or otherwise
>cajolled to that norm need to know it's for socio-economic reasons: not
>because they are somehow insufficient.
>i.e. instead of saying 'this is english' we need to start teaching 'this is
>the english of the people you need to impress'.

I have mixed feelings about this. First and foremost, there's no reason to
think there needs to be a linguistic norm. As Chomsky has noted,
"Communication is a more-or-less matter, seeking a fair estimate of what
the other person said and has in mind" (Language and Thought, p21). I can
understand some speakers of Ebonics roughly as well as I can understand my
fourteen-year-old nephew, but I can understand neither as well as I can
understand people with whom I have much common background and shared
knowledge. People of different linguistic communities communicate
effectively when they need or want to do so. There's no reason to force a
'standard' upon them in advance, as we try to do in the U.S.

The only reason it may appear that we need a norm is that we have a
particular kind of society in which socio-economic status is denied to
groups which are historically disadvantaged (people of color, or people who
did not pay attention in high school, or did not go to college), and the
way they speak identifies what group they belong to. It's true that we
could continue to try to change people so that they have a chance of doing
well within this corrupt system, but our energies might be better spent in
trying to change the system itself and in heralding the linguistic talents
of the communities most threatened by authority figures.

- -------------------------------
Jeff MacSwan, Ph.D.
Lecturer, Center X, UCLA Education Department
Postdoctoral Fellow, UCLA Linguistics Department
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