Wednesday, March 12, 2008

...lest linguists be judged

A friend's comment on a recent post challenges the absolute virtue of the commonly shared stance among linguists, against prescriptivism. How do we know we're right to reject a prescriptive view?

Linguists like to use the analogy of a biologist who simply describes a cell but doesn't judge its ±goodness. This analogy works well when we tell our intro students that there's no reason to say that a cell differentiated to function in a liver is better or worse than a cell differentiated to function in a leaf.

But what about cells that aren't differentiated? Is a cancer cell just as good as a stem cell? Here we need to nuance the claim that we are indifferent to the ±goodness of any segment. To say that I don't care about the goodness does not mean that I don't care about ill effects of a segment. Several months ago in a public forum I was accused of being too clinical in my views. If there is a danger or risk to a pure descriptivist agenda it might be captured by the old adage -- the familiar call to action: all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.

Are linguists doing nothing? Is there evil out there and we are simply unwilling to call it such? Is it possible that there is evil out there and descriptivism is simply the refusal to admit that there might be? That's part of what I hear casey asking. But instead of evil let's just go by by the simplest and most common label: bad grammar.

This is where linguists have taken the time to give texture to both words in the phrase. What is grammar and what does it mean for it to be bad? Here is where a common claim must be addressed. Linguists do believe in grammar. Linguistics relies on grammar. If there were no grammar linguistics would have no system to study. Any argument that linguists believe anything goes in language overlooks the very premise of linguistics: that not anything goes and there's value in trying to find out how those constraints are formed.

Consider the following two strings of words intended to mean that taking a shortcut is possible:

1. You might could take the shortcut.
2. You might the could shortcut take.

Which of these would a prescriptivist mark as ungrammatical? Most likely both. Which would a linguist mark as ungrammatical? First the linguist would have to determine a dialect for which to make the judgment. Most would note that sentences like #1 do occur grammatically in some dialects but not sentences like #2 -- a distinction that prescriptivists do not consider relevant.

But allowing for more texture to the prescriptivist argument: few will disagree that some speakers do knowingly utter sentences like #1 regularly. Those who do a little investigation will find that some speakers do use the double modal structure. Knowing and admitting that fact is not enough to be called a descriptivist. So a few more will agree that double-modal users even think the structure is OK. These facts are acknowledged by both prescriptivists and descriptivists.

Thus far we have agreement regarding claims about sentence 1 and sentence 2.

Claim                              P        D
S#2 doesn't occur in English X X
S#1 doesn't occur in dialect A X X
S#1 does occur in dialect B X X
S#1 sounds OK to speakers of B X X

That last claim can then be split into subclaims defining what OK means. What does it mean to hear something as OK? What does hear mean? This has been investigated by many linguists who are concerned with the nature of competence and performance. What do these speakers of B hear when they say a sentence like #1?

It's on these questions and their implications that prescriptivists and descriptivists are likely to begin the most crucial disagreements.

Prescriptivism often relies on the premise qua conclusion that a speaker who is willing to utter S#1 only accepts the structure because of a less discerning ear or a less careful mouth. The argument that language is deteriorating has to rest on the belief that poorer forms are adopted because their fault is either not noted or if noted it's not heeded. From that come the diverging reactions to the claim that S#1 sounds OK to some speakers.

Claim                              P        D
S#1 speakers of B are wrong X

Here is where linguists vary in their reasons for not agreeing to this statement. Because a standard has to be agreed upon. And the role of that standard is key. Linguistics is dedicated to the belief (that has been well supported by evidence) that speakers of B are more sensitive to the grammar of B than are speakers of A. This is where grammaticality judgements and other evidence of competence are often used to show that non-standard forms are not evidence of poorer sensitivity but different sensitivity.

I must repeat: Linguists do not believe that language should not have rules. Descriptivism is simply an agenda of inquiry that recognizes that the rules that do exist will vary between vastly different and unrelated languages as well as between almost identical dialects of a single language.

And linguists know very well that there are grammatical standards that are associated with power and which have a very real effect when ignored in various contexts. This knowledge is not prescriptive.

Next post: why prescriptivism and descriptivism are not true opposites.


  1. Very good. I'm mostly listening. One question: when does something qualify as "a dialect?" That is, in the segment of population that says "might could," are there other defining features accompanying? How many variations are necessary to constitute a dialect? Also, doesn't it seem as if all of these possible dialects, from "might could" to the "go with" that interests Sparto, diverage from a single divergent "Standard English?"

    I hope that last point makes sense. It's sort of a Platonic question, I suppose -- isn't there an ideal language away from which (for better or worse) various dialects are moving? In one town they say ("standardly") "Do you want to go?" and (in dialect) "might could." In another town they say (in dialect) "Do you want to go with?" and ("standardly") "could." But in 99 towns out of a hundred they say standardly "could" and "Do you want to go?"

    Sorry for the fervent quotation marking. Please don't get distracted by these two questions... proceed with the next post as planned!

  2. The Standard is nobody's language. It's an artificial construct, which melds elements of several dialects into one. It's almost always based on the language of the middle class a generation (or more) ago. It's preserved by writing - literate peoples' languages change more slowly because the written form is always there, but they do change until the written form is so different from the spoken that a Pushkin or Dante who comes along and writes "in the vernacular" can change everything.

    But dialects aren't falling away from some Platonic ideal. Instead, that ideal is carefully constructed to be the common form, the glue that binds the larger entity together. If the larger entity doesn't exist, you get a bazillion local variants that will keep on diverging. If it does, the divergences are smaller but more noticeable by other groups, who usually think their version is superior...

    The question then becomes, is version A "better" that version B? In the grand scheme of things, no. But IF there is a Standard, and version A is closer to it, then pragmatically, yes. Version B may be just as fine and equal a language as version A, but then so is Cherokee or Dutch, and you won't get far in the US trying to use those, either.

  3. Preview doesn't even help this early in the morning.

    "is version A "better" that version B?" clearly should be THAN...

  4. The prescriptivist doesn't have to believe that "might could" is wrong in any absolute sense. He could correct someone simply because of his preference for one dialect, or maybe because he believes that there are advantages to having a standard. As you said, there might be very little difference between the descriptivist and the prescriptivist--and maybe there's no difference in so far as which of them knows more about language.

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

    But besides, can we really imagine any group of people, no matter how small and powerless, who wouldn't have some established standard? Probably in some out-of-the-way place there is a kid who got it in his head that "could might" is just the same as "might could", and his mother dutifully corrected him. Burning the grammar books isn't going to get rid of prescriptivism.

    I can't help but think that the current academic Zeitgeist against prescriptivism has its ideological roots in political views that might be called post-colonialist, post-modern, anti-authoritarian, or maybe just egoistic. If power and group conformity is bad, but diversity and relativism is good, then there's not much room for a standard dialect.

    The enlightened prescriptivist will, of course, understand that his message is usually arbitrary--and then maybe he won't be so pompous about enforcing it. And he might decide that some battles are already lost (split infinitive, etc.) and that he gains nothing by fighting them.

  5. Dave said,

    "The anti-prescriptivist seems to hold that a culture should have no authority over a speaker. This is a moral judgment and has nothing to do with linguistics."

    And that's a pretty coherent position from where I'm sitting. In fact, I will forever stop jabbing about this point if you (WIshydig) can convince me that ideology has nothing to do with what Dave calls the "current academic zeitgeist against prescriptivism."

    In fact, the argument from "linguists" (i.e., from anti-prescriptivists) seems so totalizing that it reminds me--I'm sorry to say--of the all-encompassing claims of the rhetoricians who have, if Dave is right, a similar ideological stake.

  6. Just a picky point I have to make in regards to Casey's post, since I am a speaker of a "might could" dialect: the standard equivalent of "might could" is not "could." The standard equivalent of "might could" is "might be able to."

    To clarify the difference, I might say:

    I could take you to the party, but then I'm not sure I'd get all my work done.
    (no question about my ability=no "might could")

    I might could take you to the party, but I don't know whether my car will be out of the shop by then.
    (question about my ability="might could")

    To make this relevant to the larger discussion, I heard a colleague in English say last week that she's a prescriptivist because, as she tells her students, "if you know the standard, you can always speak the non-standard. If you only know the non-standard, you can't speak the standard." As I told her in regards to her first point, depending on what the non-standard is, "it ain't necessarily so."


Thanks for reaching out.

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