Saturday, June 18, 2011

Some Thoughts on Prescriptivism

Welcome back to Language Hippie! In today's post, I'd like to talk a little bit more about linguistic prescriptivism, or the attitude of imposing a standard on the language of others. Although I do believe prescriptivism can have its uses, in this post I'll be focusing more on what I see as its downsides.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a prescriptivist myself. To the extent that descriptivism and prescriptivism are opposed -- and I don't believe they fully are -- I come down firmly on the side of linguistic description. As a scientist of language, I don't understand why anyone would throw out good data simply because it doesn't match our preconceptions. But that's what is being done nearly every time someone says, "It's not grammatical to..." No matter what behavior that person goes on to identify -- "split an infinitive", "end a sentence in a preposition", etc. -- he or she is presenting an argument that there are instances of language around that do not fit the rules of grammar.

For a linguist, that type of claim is troubling -- or at least, it should be. Linguists think of grammar as the set of internal rules in a speaker's head that cause his or her language to come out the way it does. As a simplified example, a linguist might say that there is a rule in the grammar of English that puts the article before the noun and not after it, so that we say, "The dog jumped" and not "Dog the jumped." Linguists do not all agree on exactly how these rules work, or how they are formed or stored in the mind, but most linguists would not argue with the claim that English speakers have some sort of subconscious knowledge that keeps them from putting the article last. (By subconscious, all I mean is that you do not need to pay attention or focus to avoid saying "Dog the jumped"; your inner grammar avoids that structure automatically.)

It’s important to note here that although descriptivism is often linked with a permissive attitude toward language, a descriptivist would have no problem with calling the sentence “Dog the jumped” ungrammatical. It is a kind of sentence that no fluent English speaker would naturally produce. There is nothing inherently wrong about its word order, of course, and many languages around the world do in fact put their articles after their nouns. But English never does, and a descriptivist should have no qualms about identifying this feature of the language.

The difference, then, between the prescriptivist and descriptivist outlook is not simply that the former is concerned with language following rules and the latter thinks that any combination of words is acceptable. The descriptivist is just as concerned as the other about how language follows rules. The difference again comes down to observation: what are people in the world actually saying, and how can we describe that behavior through grammatical rules? So whereas no one is lobbying for “Dog the jumped” to be considered an acceptable sentence, a descriptivist has no objection to a sentence such as, “Where did you get those from?” This sentence is produced naturally enough by most English speakers, and that makes a descriptivist value it as a piece of data. For a prescriptivist, however, the fact that the sentence ends in a preposition somehow renders it unacceptable, no matter who said it or who thinks it sounds just fine.

It should be obvious that the usual prescriptive claim starts out as a descriptive one. There is a reason that no one goes around printing in textbooks that the English article should go after the noun, because it is very clear that that is not how the language works. There are, however, a great many sentences that English speakers and writers produce that would support the claim that a sentence in this language can’t end in a preposition. Rather than say, “Where did you get those from?”, some speakers would ask, “From where did you get those?” And when we recite the American Pledge of Allegiance, we swear loyalty to the flag “and to the republic for which it stands”, not “and to the republic which it stands for.” Sentences such as these give credence to the notion that English prepositions don’t end clauses. Or, to put it another way, that rule accurately describes the linguistic behavior of those sentences.

The problem is that such a rule, which starts out as a pure description of how previous sentences have been produced, gets elevated over time to become an authority for how other sentences should be produced in the future -- or a damnation of sentences being spoken in the world today. A prescriptivist, in short, is someone who promotes the status quo of yesterday as the standard for today, ignoring the fact that today’s status quo is perfectly valid in its own right.

Perhaps this is a feature of the human condition: glorifying the way things were in the past and denouncing anything that strikes us as new and unusual. That’s a bigger issue than I’m prepared to tackle on this blog, however. What I’d like to come back to, instead, is why I think it’s bad science.

A linguist’s job, as I’ve mentioned before, is to accurately describe the evidence of speech and writing in the form of rules representing a speaker’s subconscious knowledge of language. This is a scientific process, and the scientific method involves the regular formation of hypotheses -- temporary conclusions that can be tested and refined with further data. It is a poor scientist who grows so attached to his hypothesis that he neglects to test it further, or who invents reasons to throw out any evidence that goes against her preconceptions. In the case of the prescriptivist, there is often a vicious cycle: an existing ‘rule’ of grammar is considered to be unbreakable, so anything that doesn’t fit the rule is labeled as ungrammatical -- meaning, of course, that those pieces of language cannot be considered as data, and only sentences which do not break the rule are actually tested against it. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which no further scientific progress is made.

There are other reasons to reject prescriptivism, too, that have nothing to do with science. As unscientific as it is to identify someone’s speech as ungrammatical, it is also quite hurtful -- for our language is a reflection of our identity, so how can we be anything but offended when someone tells us we are doing it wrong? In short, prescriptivism in language strikes me as both misguided and dangerous.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Welcome to Language Hippie!

Hello there! And welcome to Language Hippie, a new blog I have set up as a voice for language celebration and tolerance. I am a linguist, and a language descriptivist -- a fancy term that means I approach language as a subject to be observed and described, rather than as something out of control that needs to be tamed. Descriptivists like me are scientists, and we study the world as it already is. When it comes to language, that means that we don't use words like "improper" or "ungrammatical" to describe the things that people say on purpose. Instead, we just try to describe what was said, and speculate about why they said it -- the rules to people's internal grammar, so to speak.

Descriptivism's opposite is an approach known as prescriptivism, and it's how most people seem to view language. Prescriptivists are like doctors, prescribing what should and should not be done by their patient. Language prescriptivists tend to view language as a system of laws: there is a single right way of doing things, and anyone who doesn't follow the rules is speaking incorrectly. That's the view that foreign language instructors take, and with good reason. But a prescriptivist attitude is by definition a judgmental one, and it is unfortunately often a condescending and mocking one to boot.

And it is also very common in the world today. A Facebook group entitled "I judge you when you use poor grammar" currently boasts over 400,000 members, and a Google search for the phrase "I am a grammar nazi" yields 250,000 hits. If that last factoid doesn't strike you as odd, consider how rare it is to hear someone self-identify as a Nazi in any other context. The phrase "grammar nazi" likely came about due to the Nazi Party's reputation for extreme intolerance and rule-following, but it has been embraced as a label by many in the prescriptivist crowd. As anyone online is probably already aware, harshly judging other people's language is rather fashionable today.

It is this attitude that I wish to counter, in my own little corner of the internet. I am not here to judge your language -- I'm here to embrace it. A descriptivist birdwatcher doesn't yell at a penguin when the creature fails to fly; he adjusts his preconceptions (if necessary) of what being a bird entails. And if he's like me, he's fascinated by this new diversity he's discovered.

So welcome to the blog. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions of future topics you'd like to see me cover, feel free to leave a reply. "Correct" spelling and grammar not required.