LINGUIST List 8.1748

Fri Dec 5 1997


Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Alan Smith, Disc: Re: 8.1657: Prescriptivism
  2. bwald, Disc: Re: 8.1657: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Disc: Re: 8.1657: Prescriptivism

Date: Mon, 1 Dec 1997 10:53:33 GMT0BST
From: Alan Smith <>
Subject: Disc: Re: 8.1657: Prescriptivism

I agree with Di Kilpert to the extent that there is a huge gap between
what linguists think and what the public thinks about language.
Non-linguists generally persist with their evaluative attitudes to
language despite their lack of rationality. I also agree that when
linguists decide to describe rather than prescribe, they have already
in some way declared their adherence to certain cultural values that
differ from the mainstream. In that sense, they are not being
absolutely objective. But of course, there are degrees of

However, I think that the influence of professional linguists on
public attitudes should not be exagerrated. In the discussion on
ebonics that took place on this list a few months ago, it was
noteworthy that numerous contributors bemoaned the fact that they
could do little to convince non-linguists that all language varieties
were essentially equal.

Also, it should not be forgotten that the principle of linguistic
equality is not new, although it has been particularly emphasized by
sociolinguists: the neo-grammarians of the last century were quite
contemptuous towards linguistic purists, whom they saw as an obstacle
to a proper scientific understanding of sound change. Far from losing
public confidence, it seems likely that descriptive linguists never
really had it in the first place.

I agree that subjective attitudes to language have been seriously
neglected by linguists, probably because of the broad consensus on
linguistic equality. Consequently linguists have been charged with
excessive liberalism and held responsible for the decline of literacy
skills in British and American schools for example. At the same time
it is difficult to imagine on what other basis linguists could proceed
without becoming embroiled in bizarre debates on, say, the supposed
superiority of French over English because of the higher
abstractedness of French and hence its greater capacity for handling
ideas. In addition, people who complain about the 'abuse' of the
language never seem to have any problems in gaining access to the
media, whereas the voice of reason struggles to be heard.

So, in brief, my answer to Di Kilpert is that I can't really agree
that linguists have damaged their public reputation, but their neglect
of subjective attitudes as a phenomenon worth studying in itself has
certainly not helped their cause. I also think that the abandonment of
the linguistic equality principle would be far too high a price to pay
to pay for the reconciliation of public and professional attitudes to
language. I fear such an abandonment would take us back to the days
when people were "convicted of speaking their own language."

Alan Smith,
School of Modern Languages, Dept of French
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
U.K. E-mail:
Fax: (0191)2225442
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Message 2: Disc: Re: 8.1657: Prescriptivism

Date: Thu, 4 Dec 1997 02:47:38 -0800 (PST)
From: bwald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Disc: Re: 8.1657: Prescriptivism

Di Kilpert writes:

>"My concern is that outsiders' misunderstanding of linguists'
>anti-prescriptivism has damaged the image of linguistics. I also
>have a sneaking suspicion that there is no such thing as pure
>description in linguistics. The anti-prescriptivist stance seems to
>me responsible for a lot of linguistic split personalities."

I have to interpret what the various assertions here mean in order to
respond. Generally, my feeling is that linguists have at best been
ineffectual and at worst made enemies by failing to contextualize
their anti-prescriptivist remarks. That is, by ignoring the social
underpinnings of prescriptivism and how it is inseparable from social
use of language, many linguists have underestimated the difficulty of
the anti-presciptivist stance being understood by outsiders. In favo
of linguists, however, it seems to me that outsiders generally do not
consciously understand the origins and social motivations of their own
prescriptivist opinions, and their attempts to defend those opinions
are almost always naive (when not merely sophistic), misguided and/or
downright wrong. The cliche'd attack on English multiple negation
with "two negative make a positive" is typical, and representative of
a larger class of prescriptivist rationalizations to the effect that a
PROscribed grammatical construction (or whatever) "ain't *logical*",
cf. the attack on expressions such as "more unique". Thus, when
prescriptivists offer "logic" in defense of one of their
rationalizations, they fail to understand the real reason why some
particular grammatical construction is proscribed. Getting back to
linguists, they can see the fallacy in such rationalizations all
right, and recognize that languages have their own "logics" (the
discovery of which is what linguistics is about), but they generally
fail in just the same area as their opponents do, in explaining where
prescriptivism comes from and what it's all about.

As for the notion that there's no "pure" description in linguistics, I
have difficulty understanding the intent of that remark. The best I
can come up with is that linguists have some difficulty in recognizing
what is indeed possible in their own language, or whatever language
they're describing with the aid of speakers who may very well be
victims of irresistable prescriptivism even when encouraged not to be.
The whole issue of what is grammatical may be involved, with such
ancillary concepts as "semi-grammatical", "not great but better than
some other construction", etc etc. -- the whole problem of
"grammaticality". But I don't think this is what was intended. More
likely it's something about unconscious prescriptivism, for reasons
other than some theoretical inclination, and is a phenomenon familiar
to sociolinguists dealing with the judgments of speakers of
subordinate and/or stigmatized language varieties, such that their
judgments are at variance with regularities in their spontaneous
speech behavior. So I can see a point to the remark, but I cannot
further comment on it without clarification of its intent.

The part about linguistic split personalities harks back to what I
said above about the social bases of prescriptivism, such that
linguists might not be able to consistently practice what they preach
with regard to anti-prescriptivism -- and we must note that
prescriptivist conditioning starts early in life, before introduction
to linguistic theory, and has its visceral side. (NB linguists and
outsiders both share this particular visceral side as socially
conditioned speakers of the same language, whereas there is also a
visceral side to linguistic theory, including the anti-prescriptivist
doctrine, which is naturally peculiar to linguists, and as
incomprehensible -- and unpredictable, regardless of "logic" -- to
outsiders as prescriptivist prejudices in one language are in general
to speakers who do not know that language.) In principle the
schizophrenia is somewhat analogous to the possibility of a linguist
being scientifically rigorous and at the same time a religious
fundamentalist, even to the extent of accepting some version of the
Tower of Babel story of linguistic diversity (contra the linguistic
concept of Proto-World, the shattered original language). Such
linguists do exist, and undoubtedly anti-prescripitivist
split-personalities are even more common. But does Di have anyone in
particular in mind? Names are not at issue, just the basis for
suggesting such a type.

>Second, I would be very happy to hear from anyone who is into the
>works of Roy Harris.

I'm not familiar with the works of Roy Harris, but am curious about
what the relationship is between that and the preceding statements.
So, I stand by for further clarifications. -- Benji
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