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.



  2. Oooh! About time a new linguistics blog came about. At some point, you should consider submitting some things to Four Stone Hearth (the Anthropology blog carnival)! There's always a lack of linguistics blogs there.

    Things I'd be curious to hear thoughts on: words in terms of political correctness vs. censorship (should there be words we avoid using)--I realize that might be more prescriptivist, but I've always thought a language with some words with meaning is better than none at all (in regards to people using the f-word or n-word to take power away from those words) and I'm always curious to hear thoughts on this.

    Other things: language in other species, how do languages become extinct, etc.

    I'll be sure to link this onto mine. :D Looking forward to reading more.

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  4. oops, had a commenting issue, okay here goes:

    Hey Joe, cool idea for a blog. There needs to be more voices in opposition to the language mavens of the world!

    Living in Hawaii, most of what I study is concerned with multilingualism, and Hawaii Creole English, or Pidgin, is a widely spoken and stigmatized language here. Not sure if you're familiar with it, but I'm curious about your ideas on raising awareness about these issues, and maybe how you might see them discussed in education.

    I'd also be interested to hear your views on language revitalization if that's something you wanted to talk about on this blog.

    Looking forward to your posts!


  5. Hey man! I really really LOVE your blog idea! I'm a sociolinguist and am totally a descriptivist. I hate prescriptivism! Check me out at I'll be sure to add your blog to my blogroll!

  6. You should read my latest post on "Learning Dialects" where I discuss dialect discrimination, as well! Sorry for the after thought!

  7. As a language lover with similarly hippie tendencies, I'm delighted to see your blog, Joe. As an editor, I believe there's a place for informed prescriptivism – but as you point out, much of what passes for prescriptivism is mere grammar nazism and ill-mannered peeving. We need more embracing of idiosyncrasies, more non-judgemental fascination!

  8. Great idea for a blog! I have been meaning to ask this question, and may as well do it here: Has there ever been, to your knowledge, any linguistic analysis of the utterances of people "speaking in tongues"?

  9. Great idea Joe. Looking forward to some fun discussions and to the day the grammar nazis discover your blog and turn on the blitzkrieg. Watch out. They have a tendency to be on attack mode all the time. Anyway, looking forward to a great blog.

  10. a slip of tongue creates a new word(language)