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.