The humble prescriptivist

There’s been some discussion of prescriptivism on various linguistics blogs lately (Kory Stamper has links). The prescriptivism in question is definitely annoying, but I think everyone misses the mark a bit. Jonathon Owen comes the closest to the way I think about it. And the way I think about it comes from Deborah Cameron’s excellent 1995 book Verbal Hygiene (re-released in 2012 with a new foreword).

Since I first heard the term, I’ve come to realize that “verbal hygiene” is kind of a clunky term, so let me propose an alternate one: humble prescriptivism. Before I get to that, though, let me show you what I see as lacking in the descriptivism that linguists so publicly cherish. Meet Chris, the descriptivist chemist:

STEVE: Chris, did you test that substance?
CHRIS: Yes, it’s quite toxic.
STEVE: What?
CHRIS: Oh yes, the amount he put in that punch bowl is enough to kill anyone who takes a sip.
STEVE: Why didn’t you stop him?
CHRIS: I’m a scientist, Steve. I describe the way the world is, not the way I think it should be.

Dave, the descriptivist fashion consultant:

LISA: Dave, what do you think of this suit?
DAVE: It’s blue.
LISA: Yes, but so is that one.
DAVE: It’s a lighter blue than that one. And it doesn’t have pinstripes.
LISA: Yes, but which one is better for this interview?
DAVE: I’m a scientist, Lisa. Some people wear light blue suits to interviews, some people wear dark blue suits. Some people wear suits with pinstripes. They’re all considered appropriate.

Mary, the descriptivist musicologist

STEVE: So, great concert, huh?
MARY: They played with enthusiasm.
STEVE: But did you like it?
MARY: The melody of this version of “Smoke on the Water” didn’t match the studio version or the original Deep Purple version.
STEVE: So you didn’t like it?
MARY: I didn’t say that, Steve. I’m a scientist. Who am I to say that their playing is good or bad? They’re people. They play music.

There are three humble ways to be prescriptivist:

Aesthetics
. De gustibus non est disputandum. People’s tastes are their own, and if I happen to think that Portuguese personal infinitives are sublime and “intranet” is one of the ugliest words in the English language, that’s my right. This is respectful as long as I make it clear that it’s my personal taste.

Social utility. There are communal norms and trends, and sometimes it’s useful to take them into account. It’s especially useful when you’re selling things. This is humble as long as we’re honest about how well we really know and understand these community norms and trends, and what our claims are based on.

Politics. Speech acts are quite often political acts. Names and categories are frequently fraught with politics. Language policy, like all policy, is political. This is respectful as long as we’re honest (with ourselves, at a minimum) about what our political goals are, and how likely our language actions are to achieve them.

It’s arrogant to disguise your political, social or aesthetic goals as the implementation of some universal standard of good or bad, right or wrong. It’s disrespectful to pretend that your norms are everyone’s norms. It’s disrespectful to insist that everyone else slavishly follow the traditions that you personally value. It’s arrogant to set yourself up as the arbiter of good taste.

It comes down to humility and respect. If I want you to (say) stop using “come out of the closet” to mean “declare a gender transition,” I’m going to explain to you exactly why that’s a bad idea, and it’s up to you to decide whether to agree with me. If I think you’ll have a better chance at that job interview if you can avoid dialect features that are known to trigger the interviewer’s unconscious prejudices, I’m going to explain that and let you decide if you want to take that chance. If I would rather hear you say “internal website” than “intranet,” I’m going to tell you that’s my personal preference, and leave it up to you whether or not you want to accommodate it.

Linguists should not be arguing against all prescriptivism, only the arrogant, disrespectful kind. And there’s really too much of that kind in the world.

One thought on “The humble prescriptivist

  1. I generally agree with what you’ve said here. Your point about being honest about the motivation behind and limits to one’s usage opinions is one that is too rarely taken to heart, and far too rarely followed. I’m feeling a bit bad about my own stridency in some previous advice I’ve given in light of your post. 🙂 And I really like your term “humble prescriptivism”.

    I have to disagree with your non-language descriptivists, though. There’s a big difference between not bringing in one’s own judgments to an analysis and refusing to say anything more than “this form also exists”. A descriptivist fashion consultant would, at the least, try to determine which groups wear what, and ideally begin investigating why.

    But more importantly, descriptivists don’t need to supply their judgments, because there’re already so many other people doing so. In the case of the chemist, for instance, it would be ore akin to the descriptivist saying “yup, it’s toxic” while hundreds of people crowd round the punch bowl shouting that no one should drink from it. (Unfortunately, hundreds more would be crowded round other unpoisoned bowls shouting the same.) Of course, there’s a huge difference between cases where something can be objectively assessed as universally bad, as with poisons, versus language, where the subjects of discussion are almost always things that are acceptable in some situations and not others, and are rarely if ever universally wrong.

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