Luke’s Languages


“Prescriptive and descriptive? Sounds like you’re trying to teach me something!”

(Well, just briefly, okay? Go make some popcorn if it’s that bad.)

Basically, whenever people talk about language, they either try to say what’s ‘correct’ (prescriptive), or what it ‘is’ (descriptive). Hopefully you have some strong opinions about this.

If you don’t yet, here are some points against prescriptivism. It’s had such famous moments as calling non-standard dialects “corrupt”, forming an office in Québec to stop English borrowings from “polluting” French, and policing “legal language” in the Soviet Union (just like 1984). After all, said Orwell, if you’re prevented from ever hearing certain words, you can’t think them. Which is kind of frightening. So in today’s popular linguistics, there’s a ton of support for “all language is equally valid”. After all, you can’t stop language from changing, so why try?

But before we completely trash prescriptivism, has it got anything going for it? Well, for one thing, dictionaries. Apparently we trust them to tell us what our own words are supposed to mean. Samuel Johnson chided that “no [nation] has preserved [its] words and phrases”—a phrase that appeared in the introduction to his magnum opus, A Dictionary of the English Language. Prescriptivism also led to uniform spelling, which makes recognizing words a lot easier on our brains. Finally, there are some neologisms that, frankly, make us cringe when we really think about them (and I, for one, could care less).

True, prescriptivism came from the idea of having a “prestigious”, “correct” language. But the wishy-washiness of descriptivism’s origins are accused of lacking solid ground. In either case, it’s going to be a matter of opinion—at least, coming from someone who hesitates to call one view or the other strictly correct.

Now that we’ve got the abstract out of the way, tune in next time for some down-to-earth language stuff!