Friday, March 14, 2008

...lest linguists be judged (II)

Dave has left a carefully thought out and nicely written comment on the last post. And it's relevant to the topic I promised for today: why prescriptivism and descriptivism are not true opposites.

His comment starts off with some important claims. I agree with some and disagree with others.

Agree: The prescriptivist doesn't have to believe that "might could" is wrong in any absolute sense.

Many prescriptivists don't make an argument of absolute or intrinsic evil. Or any evil at all. The judgment against a form is usually about the ability of a form to serve a purpose. Therefore...

Agree: He could correct someone simply because...he believes that there are advantages to having a standard.

Disagree: The distinction between the two groups is based in the question of whether a culture has the right to enforce its own norms. The anti-prescriptivist seems to hold that a culture should have no authority over a speaker.

Linguists don't even question that a culture enforces its own norms. And we don't want to change that. The only disagreement here might be the relative effectiveness of forms of enforcement and what methods are necessary. Native English speaking children don't have to be told that if the past tense of a verb follows a determiner it is a passive use of a past participle used adjectivally. A child with typical native exposure to English will correctly answer the question where are the washed dishes? on a first encounter -- never told that the syntactic category of verb can't follow a determiner. Chances are, that child will never hear that. The kid's parents probably wouldn't even be able to give more than a primary judgment that the sentence would otherwise be ungrammatical.

Where did the child learn this? And where did little Jodi Midwest learn that the /aɪ/ diphthong alternates with [əɪ] when it precedes a voiceless obstruent? Did anyone have to tell me? No one ever did.

But I was surrounded by native speakers and I learned the productive rules of grammar so that the first time I saw the work tike I knew that the vowel was the same as the vowel in rice but not the same as time.

And what of forms of enforcement don't work? This may be one of the biggest differences. Let's take a look at the nominative|accusative confusion that I mentioned in a recent post. When the accusative me form started showing up in coordinated phrases where the nominative I had been standard prescriptivists started calling it to everyones attention. And people did listen. What they heard was that me was being overused. So they started using I in coordinated phrases even as an accusative. That's hypercorrection. Careful prescriptivists have caught this and many of them are now focused on another side of the argument making the case that I is being overused. Overt arguments for preferred grammatical forms (prescriptions) can gain their adherents. And some speakers will work hard to speak according to these prescriptions. Prescriptions will collect supporters. But language will move in other directions at the same time. Arguments that there should be absolute regularity are nice -- but they are misguided. Language is is both grammatical and lexical. There are forms that follow rules and there are arbitrary exceptions to these rules. This is true in every language. And in both the non-standard and standard dialects. And in colloquial register and formal register.

And a linguist can explain the pattern of cases and hypercorrections and changes. And we can explain how to recognize the nominative and accusative cases to anyone who asks. And most linguists will say that the forms are of varying conspicuousness depending on the context. And we might even give advice regarding the effective use of different registers.

Agree: "This is a moral judgment and has nothing to do with linguistics."

Dave says this about the argument of who should have influence over language. Most linguists are not willing to say that certain people should have influence over language. And they are not too likely to say that anyone shouldn't have influence over the language. They're more interested in the question of who does and who doesn't.

In personal correspondence casey asks if there has "ever been a time when prescriptivism was defended in intellectual circles?" Yes. By true intellectuals. Still.

I want to be clear about this. Prescriptivism is not the product of simple thinking. Prescriptivists are investigators. They often do well in school. They analyse arguments and shape their claims with great interest and care. They work hard at their opinions. They are tenacious thinkers and they often reach the heights of their field. They just tend not to be linguists.

And I have to say that a lot of the ideology that Dave defends is not full prescriptivism as I define it. It isn't prescriptivism to use a textbook to teach the patterns of language; or teaching students to adhere to a standard in writing or even in speech; or letting a speaker know that there are varying registers even within a single dialect and that an audience will make certain judgments based on the word forms, syntactic forms, and phonological forms used. An instructor or confidant can give advice on language choices. And you know what? So can a linguist. How is this possible?

Because prescriptivism and descriptivism are not true opposites. Wha-?

You can adopt a prescriptive view and still practice descriptivism. Huh-?

Stay with me.

Descriptivism is a premise to a method of study. Linguists agree to approach every language with no biases other than interest. It's okay if a linguists is excited about the possibility that a language has fewer phonemes than any other language as long as the linguist is honest about the findings. It's OK if a linguist is fascinated by evidence that one language doesn't have a present progressive form. As long as that linguist promises to describe the evidence accurately. And it's even OK if a linguist is somehow annoyed by the rhythm or bored by the extremely regular phrase structure in a language. As long as the description represents the actual prosody or structure.

Descriptivism is a promise to report what is found.

Prescriptivism is a range of conclusions based on those findings. Should speakers (or interested non-speakers) make a conscious effort to preserve or change those findings? What form should that effort take? Have we heard about linguists working to preserve endangered languages? Of course. Is there a prescriptive agenda in that? Yes. Where is the line? The value given to method of influence. If a body of speakers realistically can be encouraged to pass on the language then linguists trust that using the language with children is vital. And teaching it to adults is helpful.

Here's the most important line: linguists have no interest in discouraging any form from being available to speakers.

That suspicious singularity among linguists is not because of a shared ethos antithetical to prescriptivism. It's because no linguist needs to be prescriptive. Linguistic inquiry does not rely on any notion of what features a language would be better or worse for having. It doesn't rely on any notion of which features should characterize a dialect of power. We recognize that there are standard dialects and just as our scholarship isn't based on a view they deserve that power our study also has no need to lament the fact that they have it.

Linguists don't have much control over the course language. And we don't want it. While such an interest amongst linguists would pose no threat to society or even to language -- it would pose a threat to the accuracy of our descriptions. And accurate description is our scholarly task.

Coming posts:
So what about that partisan political bias?

And what is a dialect? (Just for casey I'll try a lame introduction to an entire field within linguistics.)


  1. Perhaps I'm missing this part of the discussion, but linguists are not deaf to the effect of even socially constructed norms about language. A descriptivist might note that people say Me and him went to the movies, and might wonder about what the rules are for pronoun inflection that would cause a native speaker to utter this sentence. And a descriptivist would argue that this construct is not "wrong" in any absolute sense, since native speakers say things like this thousands of times a day, so obviously it must have some explanation in the lowercase-g grammar of English.

    But no descriptivist would argue, AFAIK, that the sentence is never wrong. As David Foster Wallace noted in the much-discussed "Tense Present," there's nothing inherently wrong with skirts, and there's nothing absolutely wrong with men wearing skirts, but "even Steven Pinker," as I believe he said, would not send his son to school in a skirt. :-) More pragmatically, a descriptivist who's submitting a CV for a job might should check that the language in it conforms to the (mostly) agreed-upon rules of standard written dialect.

  2. Mike: Thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful reply.

    Here's my question: If a linguist's only business is to objectively record what he learns about a language, then why criticize prescriptivists at all? Why not simply note their existence as an interesting sociolinguistic phenomenon, and then just record what is observed?

    However, since a linguist has no moral authority in the study of language, he is either out bounds when he attacks a prescriptivist's moral pronouncements, or he is not acting as a linguist.

    Of course linguists should be people before they are linguists, and so naturally they will make moral judgments when they talk about subjects that they care about. The trouble is, a lot of times I hear moral claims that are disguised as "scientific fact". This is handy because then the arguer doesn't have to face the real assumptions--and foundation if there is one--behind his moral positions.

    Perhaps I'm only writing this now because of a very irritating conversation I had with someone recently, who would not admit that his views on such views as wealth distribution were moral in nature, as if the inevitability of the proletarian revolution rendered him an unbiased observer, who just so happened to want to speed that revolution up in any way he could.

    You're right that I'm not a prescriptivist in the full sense, and I'm often annoyed by prescriptivists. But in this debate I think I'm more annoyed by all the prescriptivist/moralizers in linguist's clothing who criticizes others for being prescriptivists/moralizers.

    And to be clear, I've know plenty of linguists, including you, Mike, who I don't mean to cast aspersions on here--since they recognize the boundaries of their science. It may be that the real problem is with the people who only know a little bit of linguistics, just like the people who only know a little bit of Marxist theory.

  3. wordguyz: Yes. that's what I was getting at with the following: And most linguists will say that the forms are of varying conspicuousness depending on the context. And we might even give advice regarding the effective use of different registers.

    Dave: "If a linguist's only business is to objectively record what he learns about a language, then why criticize prescriptivists at all?"

    There are plenty of linguists that I think relish an irrelevant rant. There are a lot of them. The complaints that I believe are within the bounds of linguists are those that correct factual errors and offer more effective analyses.

    E.g: Someone says "If you don't know the difference between saw and seen you're speaking sloppily and you're not following any rules of grammar. What's to stop you from speaking pure gibberish?"

    A linguist can quite easily show that the person who says "I seen him earlier today" is following grammatical rules and is speaking a constrained language. They are just different constraints. And the rules might be simpler or more complex or remarkably similar.

    Someone says "that child isn't going to learn the proper syntactic form unless some adult clearly explains it."

    A linguist can convincingly argue that the grammar does not need to be explicitly explained and it rarely is. The child will eventually produce fully grammatical sentences.

    Linguists that argue against prescriptivism are typically concerned with those claims that misrepresent the language as it is spoken; that misrepresent the effect or consequences of certain forms; that misrepresent the history of the language.

    Take a look at Elizabeth's comment on the first post. The colleague's view that speaking a standard enables you to speak a dialect more easily than speaking a dialect enables you to speak a standard is verifiably false.

    Of course a teacher is free to say something like that. And a linguist doesn't have to present a counter argument. In fact a tactful linguist will avoid it just as a tactful prescriptivist will avoid commenting on someone's grammar.

  4. I'm enjoying this. When you do get to the "what is a dialect?" post, can you try to explain how individual speech eccentricities figure in to all this? For example, Best Week Ever made fun of one of those models on America's Top Model or something because in her mock interview, she said "actually" about seventeen times in three minutes.

    And I know that's probably a bad example: that's probably one of those space-holders like "um" or "like," but if there is no "ideal Platonic language" (I agree that there is not), then on some absurdly unplatonic level, doesn't each speaker practice his or her own unique dialect, gathered as it has been from a unique sequence of influences?

    I'm guessing there's a critical mass, blahblablahstatistics, whatever. But insofar as linguistics claims to be a science, this seems to me an important point. Ultimately, I'm guessing, everything can be reconciled by standard deviation, and I don't mean to sound "argumentative," only to see if I can make my questions understood... probably because I'm curious why my reaction is suspicious.

  5. Casey, you make an interesting point about standard deviation. In practice, even native speakers make grammatical mistakes all the time in spoken language -- reading transcripts is often an eye-opening exercise from a linguistic point of view. Or if not outright mistakes, they utter incomplete sentences, change sentences halfway through, and so on. There is, as they say, a lot of distortion in the signal. And noise as well, such as the 17 actuallys in the model's utterance. But listeners subconsciously adjust for this (unless they decide to focus on the language itself) and reconstruct the "correct" version as they listen. It's easy to test this -- find someone with a noticeable accent and speak with them for a while -- even though they mispronounce words, at least in comparison with native speakers, the message comes through.

    @dave, I disagree on whether linguists have any right to argue about prescriptivist pronouncements. In the ideal case, descriptivists and prescriptivsts are approaching the same material in different ways and for different reasons. The descriptivist examines the mechanics of a language ("how"), while the prescriptivist examines, essentially, the social norms of the language ("should").

    The conflict arises because some prescriptivists will occasionally say things that, as wishydig notes, are verifiably false. In an odd way, sometimes it doesn't matter -- a prescriptivist might say "ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong" and a descriptivist will say "tosh, there's not an iota of historical data to back that claim," and yet it might not matter, because if the social norms say it's bad to end with prepositions, then it's bad to end with prepositions. Not because it's wrong, but because people -- people like the prescriptivist -- will look down on you for doing so. The rule takes on a life of its own that has the kind of moral authority roughly equivalent to authority of a rule like "no brown shoes with a blue suit." Is it right? Is it wrong? Does it have moral weight? All social questions, not linguistic ones.

    And certainly descriptivists bristle, perhaps with more justification, at suggestions that the language is being degraded by certain usages. (Usages that are often subject to the "recency illusion" -- the idea that whatever is under scrutiny is a recent development ... most condemned usages have been around much longer than most linguists have been.) The idea of degradation does have moral implications, and descriptivists (specifically, historical linguists) are in a very good position to discuss language change and the "degradations" that produced the language that is often thought to be in jeopardy.

    Besides, descriptivists are native speakers, too. So they have as much authority as any other native speaker to determine proper usage. :-)

  6. very interesting discussion.

    We all have opinions about language and usage, as we should. I'd just like our opinions to be informed. So for instance if you think "less" should not be used with count nouns - that's an opinion. But if you think that good writers don't use "less" with count nouns, or that "less" with count nouns is a sign of language anarchy - that's an uninformed opinion.


Thanks for reaching out.

You can also contact me at wishydig[at]gmail[d0t]com.