Linguistics and prescriptivism

LinguisticsPosted by Jim Baker Fri, January 10, 2014 01:13PM

There is an article in the Telegraph this week in which Lynne Truss complains about the failure of linguistics to involve itself in prescriptivism.

Her particular prescriptive argument here seems to be that if we are not careful with the way we write – or at least, if we are not careful with what spell-checking software we choose to use, which isn't really the same thing – we may end up with such ambiguities as being unable to distinguish between “everyday” and “every day”, “anyway” and “any way” etc. There are a few ways I can think of in which one might react to ambiguity in language. One is to throw out absolutely everything that could lead to ambiguity, which would in fact be tantamount to throwing out the whole of language and starting again. Another is to accept it unless it actually causes problems. But the examples Truss gives don’t actually cause major problems, because with most of them it’s always going to be clear what is meant, and those cases in which it might not be are rather contrived and not likely to actually occur very often.

If we actually look at linguistic facts – and presumably when Truss calls for linguists to get involved in prescriptivism she does so because she recognises that we probably have better understanding of actual linguistic facts than most people – we find clear examples of this. Spellings like “any body” for “anybody”, which presumably Truss would condemn, are (I believe) frequent in the works of at least one major author (Jane Austen), something which does not appear to have caused many people to have thrown Pride and Prejudice out of the window in a fit of confusion at what the words mean. The ancient Romans and Greeks – and the modern Chinese – did/do not use spaces at all, writingallwordsinonelongstringlikethis, and this does not seem to have led to a great deal of cultural impoverishment.

I strongly suspect that if linguists were actually to get involved in trying to “improve” language, traditional prescriptivists wouldn’t like it very much. (I am now going to get slightly Marxist.) The problem is that prescriptivism, typically, isn’t actually about “improving” language, or “trying to prevent its decline”. It just deludes itself that it is. It’s actually about preventing members of lower-status social groups from enjoying the benefits and privileges open to higher-status groups. It’s about taking one variety of language, the choice of which would appear entirely arbitrary if we were looking at purely linguistic criteria, and saying “this way of speaking/writing is better”. In fact the only tangible way in which this variety is “better” is that it is associated with higher-status groups – people from a certain social background or with a particular type of education. But now it’s been set up as superior – a sort of superiority that typically has a quasi-moralistic tone to it, or else is used to make aspersions on a person’s intelligence – it can be used to exclude people who don’t speak or write it: “You don’t speak or write correctly, therefore you can’t come to this university / work in this job.” Of course, it’s no fault of the people who don’t speak or write in this way that they grew up in an environment where they learned to speak differently, or went to a school where the standard rules of writing were not so well taught.

This isn’t how Truss presents things, of course. Indeed, she implies a rather more egalitarian motive – prescriptivism has a positive role in “remedy[ing] literacy levels” and so on. Now, let us not pay too much attention to the fact that literacy levels in this country seem actually to be improving. Would typical prescriptivism actually help matters? The answer is that it almost certainly makes things worse. Prescriptivism rests on a sizeable foundation of basically arbitrary rules like the following:

– The apostrophe is used:

(a) to mark possessives, except when it isn’t (its not it’s);

(b) to mark omitted letters, except when it isn’t (can’t not ca’n’t).

Forcing people to waste time learning such rules clearly does nothing to help literacy and as a linguist I am strongly inclined to suggest that the best thing to do may be to get rid of apostrophes altogether. I might also, for instance, suggest a more regular spelling system. But these are precisely the sorts of things prescriptivists don’t want. Their interests are in maintaining the status quo, not in creating a new system that might actually serve people better.

Let’s look at some other examples of something a prescriptively-minded linguist might be tempted to recommend. A couple of things prescriptivists tend to be big on are “clarity” and “logic”. First consider the first. Standard English, currently, has only one second-person pronoun that is in common use, namely you, which is both singular and plural. Now, there are a number of instances in which it might be fairly useful to have a distinction here as most languages do, e.g. when talking to two people: “You, come with me – you, not you.” Many English dialects actually do make such a distinction, saying for instance you in the singular and youse in the plural. I happen to think this is eminently sensible and everyone should do it – and it is certainly defensible in the interests of clarity. But I imagine your average traditional prescriptivist would be horrified by such a suggestion! It goes exactly against everything they believe about language – that the standard variety is always superior to non-standard ones.

Secondly, let’s look at “logic”. There is a recent example of a school banning the use of various spoken forms including “we was” and “you was”. (They actually spell these things “we woz” and “you woz”, which represents exactly the same pronunciation – is even, in fact, a more logical way of spelling that pronunciation – but cleverly makes it look even more non-standard and is thus a good way of stigmatising these forms even further.) But from a logical perspective, we might argue that it makes more sense to use was consistently as the past tense of be, because no other verb makes a distinction along the lines of that made by was and were. Again, no traditional prescriptivist would ever actually endorse this. Logic isn’t really the point; the relative social status of the two varieties is.

I don’t actually think linguists should be devoting their time to telling people how to speak or write, but as I’ve illustrated if we did there’s no guarantee that what we’d say would be the kind of thing Lynne Truss would like us to be saying. We can be content to describe (and explain) language. Which, contrary to Truss’s slur at the end of her article, is actually what most researchers in most fields do with their respective objects of study. I have no clear sense of what the average epidemiologist does all day, but I would guess that a large chunk of them devote all or nearly all of their time purely to describing diseases, because without that not much can be done to prevent them. Actually curing diseases is largely someone else’s job, namely doctors’. If a building fell down I would be at least as much inclined to blame the engineers and the builders as the architect – and of course, there are lots of academics who are more concerned with describing existing architecture than trying to build new buildings. Certainly it is the job of a subatomic physicist to describe subatomic particles, not to try and invent a better way of constructing a universe. It is the job of a historian to describe and explain history, not to try and change the past. Linguistics is not actually alone in being a descriptive discipline.