Descriptivism and Prescriptivism

So, John McWhorter gives the usual linguists' argument against prescriptivism in this lecture course: languages always change, there is no such thing as perfect language, today's standard talk was yesterday's mistakes, no recorded language has ever fallen apart into nonsense, and so on.

By and large, I agree with this case. However, McWhorter seriously overstates it when he claims that correcting a child's grammar is "just like" smacking the kid in the back of the head and ordering her to color within the lines in her coloring book. First of all, unless you physically punish the child for bad grammar the analogy is rather outrageous hyperbole. But more importantly: Just as languages always change and today's mistakes become tomorrow's standard speech, haven't adults always corrected kids' speech? In fact, couldn't this be an important aspect of the very process that keeps language from changing so fast that people only two or three generations apart would be mutually unintelligible? Why does the historical fact of language change justify it, but the historical fact that adults corrects kids' speech not justify that? (That is not to say one cannot go overboard with prescriptivism; for instance, when I child speaks an "uneducated" dialect, clearly it is cruel to mock him for it; the best thing, I think, if one finds oneself as the child's teacher, is to say: "The way you speak is perfectly fine and natural. However, there is a certain way of speaking that in our society is taken as a sign of being well-educated. It will be very helpful for you to know that way of speaking as well as the way you speak now.")


  1. Pedagogy aside, things like this lend themselves to a certain cycle:

    1.) Convention prevails unquestioned.
    2.) We question it and discover it's just a convention, hence not binding
    3.) But then we decide that maybe there was a reason we were abiding by the convention in the first place
    4.) Convention prevails again, until the next round of anxiety begins.

    You probably can't argue out every convention every time someone deviates from it, and when it comes to value judgments, especially where the young or poor are concerned, there's reason to think they won't agree that "do it because it marks you as being of higher class / employable" will seem like a knockdown argument. That's not to say children or the lower classes should be mocked or dealt with in a peremptory fashion, but authority should assert itself at some point.

  2. I think that I read somewhere that 'prescriptivism' is a modern phenomenon, probably part-and-parcel with positivism and the 'scientific' systematization of everything. Back before people went insane and everyone became a nitpicking legalist about everything, spelling didn't actually matter that much. I remember reading some Edmund Burke at that time, and thinking whoever said it was probably right, because he was a very intelligent and educated man, and could write amazingly well, but was breaking conventions rather more often than I would have expected.

    Unfortunately, my memory isn't good enough to remember where I saw that. Maybe this blog?

    1. Yes, Scott, prescription can certainly be overdone. My only point is that I think it could be underdone as well.

  3. You are quite right, sir. There is a time and a place for prescription. To prescribe a language usage is to tell someone that they are using language wrong, and children are patently born without the ability to use language correctly. They perforce need to be taught. The same goes for people who want to learn a new language, or a different dialect of their own language, or a distinct style or register that is used for a particular purpose (as with school kids who speak with an AAVE accent being taught standard English, or any school kids being taught how to write good formal written English).

    What breaks people's brains thinking about language is that it is by definition a set of conventions which are ultimately (almost totally) arbitrary. Because they are arbitrary, it is not a bad thing that they are labile. Because they are conventions, they are useless if they aren't respected. This seems unpalatable both to people who scorn conventions in general and to people who want conventions to be the permanent and inspired writ of Heaven.

    Language is truly an area where it is sensible to be a conservative, but inane to be a reactionary.

  4. Related to your parenthetical, the section of David Foster Wallace's "Tense Present" where he relates an idealized conversation with such a student is worth reading (search for "Standard Black English" to find it).

    1. Yes, that expresses my view very nicely, Shonk!


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