April 13, 2004

In defense of linguistic prescriptivism

I'm having a low productivity day. I have a coding problem that is just hounding me, something that simply will not run fast enough and requires a fairly big rethink. I'm avoiding getting into it in hopes that a flash of inspiration will come to me on the toilet or something.

Remarkably, this strategy actually works well. I actually had a dream last night where the solution to the whole problem came to me. It was beautiful and simple - something so transparent that I knew instantly it would work, something that would have been obvious to Kolmogorov or Chaitlin if they had only been terminologists. Unfortunately, I woke up and couldn't remember any of it.

So, until this flash of genius comes back, assuming it wasn't just the Tandoori chicken I made for dinner talking, I have some time to blog. There's so much work here that I've been putting off. The link list is a mess - out of date, doesn't reflect the people who link to me or are even still blogging, is missing a bunch of folks I do read; Grandpa is still on his way to Africa; I have a bunch of books I'd like to review; I have a couple of posts up on AFOE; there must be something new to say about this mess in Fallujah...

But, nah, I thought, why not dredge open another controversial can of worms. I figured I should either explain why I think Dave Sim is a genius because the last issue of Cerebus came out last month, or I should defend prescriptivism. So, I flipped a coin and decided to defend linguistic prescriptivism.

I'm lying. No, I didn't flip a coin. I'm a couple years behind on Cerebus anyway. I hear he's gone from misogynistic to homophobic over the last few years. I still think he's a genius, but I've never claimed that genius isn't fully compatible with being a flaming loon.

I just saw Mark Lieberman's post over at Language Log and thought it merited a comment or two:

A Field Guide to Prescriptivists

[...] Like bacteria transferring genes, prescriptivists -- whether sensible or idiotic -- mix and match ideas about usage. The resulting distribution is far from random: different prescriptive memes are more or less compatible with one another, and with other aspects of critical morphology, ideological metabolism and intellectual history. However, the result is not a nice Linnaean taxonomic tree either.

I don't think anyone can yet plausibly claim to have found memetic DNA, if such a thing is even possible. However, we can identify some key elements of prescriptivist metabolism, in terms of five different motivations that may be given for strictures about usage:

  1. Tradition -- how our forebears talked. Innovation is degeneration.
  2. Fashion-- how an admired group talks. Deviation is alienation.
  3. Universal grammar -- how one ought ideally to talk. Inconsistency is illogical.
  4. Standards -- how we should agree to talk. Variation confuses communication.
  5. Revelation -- how God taught us to talk. Alteration is transgression.

Particular cases are usually a mixture of these. Such metabolic processes may cooperate or conflict depending on details -- thus an appeal to fashion may point in the same direction as an appeal to tradition, or in the opposite direction, depending on whether the prescriptivist admires the old ways or prefers the latest thing.

These are all very substantial, unscientific and unfounded fallacies which serve as a poor basis for prescriptivism, except for numbers 2 and 4.

Fashion-- how an admired group talks. Deviation is alienation.

There is something I hoped someone would ask during the "Ebonics" kerfluffle a few years ago. Why do we teach kids standard English in school? Why do we call it standard in the first place?

The answer to the second question is one of a very small number of things on which virtually all linguists, of any stripe, agree. Standard English is standard for social and political reasons. It has no linguistic properties that make it special. Standard English does not correspond to some set of rules that can be placed in a little book and they have not come down from God or the government. It is not even a form of language that we can positively identify with the majority population of any nation on Earth, now or at any time in the past. Standard English is a fashion in the very same way that a particular style of dress is.

I remember someone half seriously saying that trends in dress follow a very simple rule: everyone tries to dress like people at least one level up in the social hierarchy, and the people at the top try not to look like anyone else. The exact form of expression that people mean by standard English is the kind of English that signals membership in the topmost classes of society. It really is that simple.

Now, at this point I could just say that we should fight the power and stop teaching "Standard English." But, I don't think we should stop. Instead, I want to advocate teaching people the truth. I want to say to them that we're teaching them the kind of English that the rich and powerful speak. They may decide to fight the rich and powerful, or they may try to join them. That's up to them. But either way, they will need to master the kind of speech that the rich and powerful speak.

This same piece of advice applies to English second language learners and people who speak "non-standard" Englishes. I think it's silly to decry prescriptivism in a second language class and I think it's just as silly to do in first language classes. But, I want to tell people the truth: We teach you how to speak in the most fashionable manner so that you will make the most positive impression on people, not because there is some arbitrary linguistic standard of right and wrong.

Standards -- how we should agree to talk. Variation confuses communication.

I hate to say this, but variation does confuse communication. Ask a translator, or better yet, an air traffic controller.

Fortunately, natural language enjoys a very high level of redundancy and people have devised a truly remarkable array of strategies to compensate for misunderstandings, ambiguity and confusion. This redundancy enables us to use language simultaneously as a medium of communication, an artform, and as a way of affirming our individuality.

I have been meaning to write a post for a long time on the linguistics of air traffic control. Most international air traffic control takes place in English. Many people believe this is required by treaty or international law - it isn't. Nearly everyone thinks that this means that all international pilots can speak English - they often can't. Yes, pilots who have mastered less than 500 words of English and cannot order a coffee in the English language fly all over the world into airports where ATC and ground control takes place exclusively in English. Almost no one knows that the single worst accident in the history of aviation - 583 dead - was caused by a Dutch pilot using a common Dutch verbal structure in English, which a Spanish air traffic controller understood as having the opposite meaning to that intended.

Air traffic control is one place where an absolutely Nazi level of linguistic fascism is generally held to be entirely justified. It is an extreme case, but not that extreme. Product labels, instructions, maintenance manuals, medical documentation - in each of these areas we are willing to forgo brevity and individuality for the sake of absolute clarity. In such instances, a failure to use a common, socially agreed upon standard language can lead to waste, economic inefficiency, legal liability, injury and even death.

There are other areas where I think weaker forms of prescriptivism are helpful - language preservation, neologisms and borrowed words, and as an aid to translators in particular - but none of those need to involve very heavy enforcement efforts to work.

No, I do not advocate the kind of folk prescriptivism associated with nuns bearing rulers. Most so-called prescriptive rules are a great big steaming pile of dog's bollocks. I'm only able to defend prescriptivism because the primitive prescriptivism of grammar school teachers is already a dead issue among language professionals.

But, language in its social context has normative elements that we can not ignore. It would be better to embrace them and make our prescriptivism rational instead of leaving it to nonsense merchants in the Times.

Posted 2004/04/13 17:06 (Tue) | TrackBack

The "answer in a dream" scenario isn't unheard of - the discoverer of neurotransmitters claims that his ingenious frog-heart experiment came to him in a dream. Here's a description of the experiment:


Sadly, my dreams mostly involve being attacked by bees...


Posted by: msw at April 13, 2004 18:13

I dreamed I was Green Lantern (the Hal Jordan model, as a matter of fact) last night. I don't remember anything about the dream except that 1) we were visiting Hell to fight demons there and 2) I felt extremely smug about being Green Lantern.

Posted by: John at April 13, 2004 21:17

It appears to me that it is not only language higher up the social stratum that makes a positive impression, but language from at least one generation ago. I think this is because senior experts and people in authority tend to be older, so their older style of speech is associated with power and knowledge, and because time acts as a filter: the best examples of writing and speech pass on through time while the weaker ones are not remembered or kept. This leaves us with the impression that in the past everyone spoke like Winston Churchill. The second effect is exaggerated by the fact that the ability of lower classes to publish has increased steadily through the invention of the printing press, mass market publishing, and now free blogging.

These two effects combine, in that people from higher social classes typically receive more education and have read more widely and are thus more aware of good language use from the past.

Tenerife is far more complex than that one communication error, but I still accept your point. Nice post.

Posted by: Qov at April 13, 2004 22:06

Qov, yes, there are some additional factors in sociolinguistics, including things like affectations, national or regional pride, and intergenerational politics. But, one factor that people don't consider is the effect of being at the top of the social hierarchy. A Texan billionaire can talk as hick as he wants. A low level manager in an international firm who happens to come from Lubbock would do well to get an accent coach. Someone with a good education and excellent standard English can get away with affectations that other people can't.

As for Tenerife, there's another post coming on language issues in aviation.

MSW - actually, just as I was falling asleep last night, the answer came back to me. This time, I got up and e-mailed it to my office. Unfortunately, it won't fix the worst problem quite so easily.

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 14, 2004 10:20

Reading this defense of prescriptivism, what struck me was that so much of what was being defended is what I call "descriptivism". There is a standard English (several of them, actually, but that is another discussion) and various non-standard Englishes. That's what descriptive linguists have been saying for decades. The usual prescriptive formulation is that there is correct English and incorrect English. The idea that an ambitious speaker of a non-standard English will find it advantageous to learn Standard English as well is uncontroversial. There may be a linguist somewhere who doesn't agree with it, but I haven't yet run across this person. The advantages of knowing Standard English while among users of Standard English are no more remarkable than the advantages of knowing Chinese while in China. The usual prescriptive formulation is to observe and be shocked by a person speaking in his native, non-standard, dialect. This is as parochial as being surprised at a person in China who doesn't understand English, even when it is spoken slowly and loudly.

I don't disagree with your points about standard and non-standard English. I just don't agree that this is what is usually meant by the word "prescriptivism".

Posted by: Richard Hershberger at April 14, 2004 20:35

Richard, I have the suspicion that that is what a lot of people mean by "prescriptivism", particularly in the context of the "Ebonics" debate. The war against hanging participles and split infinitives is a very marginal cause. The effect on children of exposure to non-standard speech through - for example - rap music is not marginal. Certainly, when the parents of my students - back in the days when I had students - demanded that I teach "correct English", it was because of a real knowlege of the social standing of their speech forms, not some belief in a universal standard of English. One of my black co-workers in the States - someone who himself had difficulties with standard English despite a university education - actually put it in very explicit terms: He wanted his boys to learn to "speak White."

I feel for folks like Mark Lieberman, who has to explain to freshmen what is wrong with their judgments of other people's speech. The depths of public linguistic ignorance is shameful. But, I think the real problem isn't that they recognise something as incorrect by their lights. It is that they fail to recognise the social reasons why they consider it incorrect and why the other person says it anyway. It isn't that prescriptivist urge that is the problem so much as the inability to recognise where it comes from and respond appropriately.

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 15, 2004 14:01

Great post. But then that's what you do

(Nit pick; saying something or someone is "the dog's bollocks" is an endorsement in normal usage. I hesitate to cite the Urban Dictionary, because it's full of shite, but this entry about sums it up.)

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at April 15, 2004 14:42

Oops. I've come to rather like the word "bollocks", but a Dutch/French bilingual country is probably not the best place to pick up English words. Voila - good prescription in action. :^)

Posted by: Scott Martens at April 15, 2004 14:57

It is a truism that most of the time descriptivists and prescriptivists agree. This is true even with the hanging-participles-and-split-infinitives crowd. Everyone agrees that "Furiously sleeps ideas green colorless" is ungrammatical. I doubt that anyone would write a defense of prescriptivism based on its correctly identifying the ungrammatical nature of that sentence.

I suppose that the implicit suggestion that if one wishes to use grammatical English, one ought not use constructions like "Furiously sleeps ideas green colorless" could be construed as prescriptive, but I'm not convinced that this is a widespread usage, or a useful one. It is simply a logical conclusion based on the facts. When your black co-worker wanted his kids to learn to "speak White" he was doing the same thing. He observed the social advantages of proficiency with Standard English, he wanted his kids to have those advantages, so he concluded that they should learn Standard English. This is no more and no less prescriptive than avoiding "Furiously sleeps ideas green colorless".

Would this commonly be characterized as "prescriptive"? I doubt that either your co-worker or your former students' parents would have thought to use the word. But if I am wrong, and this argument is commonly thought of as "prescriptivist", then the issue is not that this is a defense of prescriptivism, but that the pre- crowd has managed to seize the sociolinguistic mom-and-apple-pie popular-perception high ground.

Posted by: Richard Hershberger at April 15, 2004 19:15
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