Sunday, February 1, 2009

Prescriptivism is Descriptive

Most linguists are militantly anti-Strunk, and generally anti-prescriptivist -- they tend to work on the assumption that anything a native speaker would actually say is grammatical. I sympathize with this point of view as a prescription, viz. that anything inoffensive to the ear should be treated as grammatical, but it seems to me that descriptively speaking it's all wrong. Many of the changes in English usage between the 18th cent. and today -- from the standardization of spelling and punctuation to the abbreviation of presidential sentences -- are due to the influence of prescriptive dictionaries and books like Strunk.

Besides, some cultures tend to use diction -- like accents or clothes -- as a class marker, and you can't create e.g. an "upper-class twit" way of speaking without forbidding some "perfectly grammatical" (in the linguists' sense) forms. Since speech isn't entirely conscious, the only way to keep to these rules is to have them drilled into you in early childhood, which is done at home and at expensive schools. The more unnatural and arcane your rules the better they serve their purpose, as this makes it harder for the lower orders to pick them up, and more certain that they'll give themselves away by sliding into natural but "deliciously low" phrasing.

If we want to enforce class distinctions based on birth or education, it seems that arbitrary usage rules are a good way to go about it. A position on arbitrary linguistic rules is therefore a political position; it's beside the point to whine about "bad science," as people at Language Log like to do.


Anonymous said...

I imagine you adhere to your own "rules" in how to construct sentences, but you would consider them aesthetic preferences rather than a hard-and-fast law?

Zed said...

I don't think the distinction between aesthetic preferences and laws is well defined in the case of grammar, since "ungrammatical" = funny-sounding. Whether something sounds weird is partly subjective; Eliza Doolittle at Ascot shocks her listeners' ears but not her own, because she doesn't know the "rules" for upper-class diction, and perhaps doesn't quite realize that any exist. It all depends on what you're trying to do: e.g. an aesthetic desire to sound upper-class/educated leads to the hard-and-fast law that you can't use certain forms because educated people don't.

Grobstein said...

And descriptivism is prescriptive; they'd like to free us from respecting the arbitrary rules that we actually do respect.

I actually stopped reading languagelog because I found the prescriptivism hobby-horse so perplexing.

Zed said...

Russell says somewhere that a lot of political philosophy works as follows: you arrive at an "empirical" theory of human behavior, and when it's pointed out that that's not how people actually behave, you say that's because people are evil or stupid. (He says it much better.) This is a variant of that phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

I guess it also helps that people are actually evil and stupid.