LINGUIST List 8.1761

Sun Dec 7 1997


Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. manaster, Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

Message 1: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

Date: Sun, 7 Dec 1997 14:07:30 -0500 (EST)
From: manaster <>
Subject: Re: 8.1753, Disc: Prescriptivism

Scott Stirling's posting just took my breath away! It is rarely that
one reads something at once so obviously correct once it is pointed
out, yet so completely unobvious till now, AND so utterly antithetical
to what one has always thought. But there is one important thing to
be added: the linguistic arguments against prescriptivism that I know
of usually take the form of exposing the falsehood (or circularity) of
various claims made by prescriptivists in defense of their
prescriptions. For the crucial thing is that in all areas of human
behavior, those who prescribe how we should behave rarely admit that
the rules are purely conventional and instead pretend that the
"correct" behavior is (i) more logical, (ii) more traditional, (iii)
more rational or practical, (iv) more esthetically pleasing, (iv) more
"educated", "refined", or "civilized" than whatever is taken to be
"incorrect". It is these kinds of claims which are usually attacked
by the linguistic critics of prescriptivism. Even the simple idea
that there HAS to be a single "correct" standard of usage for every
language, which lies at the root of so much prescriptivist nonsense,
is grounded in some claims that are capable of refutation, e.g., that
a "national language" without a single standard could not fucntion
effectively as a medium of communication or the like. This, of
course, can be refuted by citing counterexamples.

There is also a particularly subtle and hence particularly nefarious
claim by some prescriptivists that antiprescriptivists need to deal
with which also is a claim of fact, namely, that the prescribed usage
is really merely the description of the usage of "educated speakers".
This is what is behind the "usage panels" used by one or more of the
dictionaries of English, which then can claim that they are being
merely descriptive. This is all factually nonsense,of course.

So Scott's point only applies to a prescriptivist who comes out and
openly admits that there is no basis whatever for his prescriptions,
that they are purely arbitrary. But to admit that would be to
undercut the whole basis for prescriptivism. In the same way, of
course, few racists, sexists, ageists would agree that their -isms are
purely arbitrary and without any basis in fact. It is difficult to
imagine someone admitting for example that (a) his notion of race is
itself arbitrary and based on superficial characteristics, (b) all
races have comparable genetic endowments, but (c) we should
nevertheless discriminate agaist certian races.

SO, while Scott's statment is right as far as it goes (and I am
really astonished that something so obvious has not been obvious, at
least to me), it only goes so far. In practice, there IS an
irreconcilable conflict between the findings of modern genetics
and linguistics and the claims of racists and prescriptivists.

Which raises the very interesting question of why so many linguists
have been involved in prescriptive work.


Scott Stirling wrote:

 I think it should be pointed out that there is no linguistic or
otherwise scientific argument against prescriptivism. Linguists tend to
make arguments from authority that presciptivism is bad or wrong, without
realizing that they are making an ethical or otherwise philsophical point.
While prescriptivists often misunderstand or are just ignorant of the
linguistic facts, linguists are just as ignorant about the types of value
judgements they make proscribing prescriptivism. I think linguists should
face the fact that as scientists they have no more authority or reason to
claim that all languages must be treated equally than does a geneticist to
say that all people should be treated equally. The realms of scientific
fact and social prescriptivism are quite different; linguists are just as
likely to misrepresent a social value as a scientific truth as are
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