Thursday, January 19, 2012

Prescriptivists' piffle versus descriptivists' data

With Language Discourses at the heart of the ENGA3 paper, it's always useful to scour the media to find examples of writers getting themselves worked up about language change or what they see as declining standards. If you've done any work on this topic so far, you'll already know that prescriptivists have always bemoaned changes to the English language but have rarely been successful in stopping its evolution.

And you'll probably already know that most linguists - those who study language - are rarely of a prescriptive mindset. They tend to see their role as describing language, pointing out how it's used and by whom, rather than judging its use as good or bad. That's why we - your English Language teachers - generally tell you to talk about standard and non-standard instead of good or bad. Hark at us telling you what to do: how prescriptive...

This week there are two or three different pieces about changing language and attitudes towards it. Simon Kelner of The Independent writes not one but two articles about things he doesn't like in language: grocer's apostrophes (potatoe's, for example), split infinitives (to prissily prescriptivise, perhaps), Waterstone's dropping its possessive apostrophe, Americanisms, and all the usual suspects. It's a load of old gubbins really and reheats some frankly rather overcooked quibbles about language, most of which get dismissed by proper linguists.

A quick read of Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars or Robert Lane Greene's chapter A Brief History of Sticklers in You Are What You Speak (or better still, a long read of both) will tell you that nearly every prescriptive argument about declining standards can be successfully debunked. There's nothing wrong with splitting infinitives (it's a an old canard based on the misapplication of Latin grammar to English), most of the supposed "Americanisms" moaned about here (for example) are not really from America at all and apostrophes are a recent and rather inconsistent form of punctuation (as David Crystal explains here).

Elsewhere, Sali Tagliamonte, who is a leading light in the field of technology and language, talks some sense about how technologies such as texting create a repertoire for young people to draw upon, rather than necessarily restricting them or dumbing them down. In her interview with the St Catharine Standard, she talks about how young language users switch between language styles depending on their understanding of what's appropriate in a given situation, making the point that "They don't just adapt haphazardly. They adapt systemically".

This is clearly a much more descriptive standpoint and one that is supported by her detailed research in the field, more of which can be found here.You can also watch a clip of Sali Tagliamonte talking about her new book (complete with tinkly electric piano music) here.

The whole prescriptive versus descriptive debate is one that we have covered many times on this blog and one that always has some relevance to the A2 year of the English Language course (be it ENGA3 or ENGB3). If you click on the labels for language discourses and language debates after this post, you can find many of the relevant articles.

Edited on 20.01.12 to correct embarrassing apostrophe error. I blame my teecherz.

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