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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Prescriptivism vs Descriptivism (Again!)

This is one of those blogs wherein I debate vociferously an issue no one could possibly care about but me.
I've been watching John McWhorter's lectures on linguistics on a series of DVDs from The Learning Company.  It really is fascinating, and McWhorter is not only tremendously bright and knowledgeable but witty and genuinely fun to watch.  Near the end of the lectures, he brings up the Descriptivist/Prescriptivist debate, weighing in on the side of Descriptivism.  (For those of you who don't know about this and who have persisted reading this blog anyway, Descriptivists are folks content to describe how language is actually used, whereas Prescriptivists describe how it ought to be used.  We're the folks who priggishly tell you, "'No, Tim and I went to the store'")
There's something slightly inconsistent about the Descriptivist position, but maybe I'm just imagining it.  I can't picture a Prescriptivist saying it was wrong to study how language is actually used in common talk.  That seems good and interesting and worthwhile.  The Prescriptivist would say to the Descriptivist, "Go forth and describe!  God speed you!"  But the Descriptivist tells the Prescriptivist he shouldn't oughter go around Prescribing stuff.  The Prescriptivist is content to let the Descriptivist be, but not the other way around.  The Descriptivist says we have no right to prescribe how language ought to be, but feels perfectly justified prescribing how the study of language ought to be.
McWhorter gives several persuasive arguments why Prescriptivism is a waste of time that could be better spent, say, darning socks.  1. It is the nature of language to change, and if we don't object to the thousands of years of change that brought about English as we speak it today, we shouldn't be troubled that it's continuing to change right now.  2. Many of the solipsisms we object to today would not have troubled Thomas Jefferson while Jefferson would have considered many of our commonly accepted usages vulgar.  3. Some usages we object to most strongly have really been around for a very long time.  For example - and I was unaware of this - using "they" as a singular in a sentence like "Someone left their book on my desk."  Another example "verbing," making a verb out of a noun.  Shakespeare himself has a gorgeous line, "Uncle me no uncles!"  And last, 5. In all the long history and prehistory of language, there is not one example of a language degenerating to the point people were unable to express themselves with perfect - relatively perfect - clarity to one another.
The first two are really one argument so I'll lump them together.  Just because a process is natural and perhaps unavoidable doesn't mean we should abet or even tolerate it.  I can contemplate the extinction of the dinosaurs with perfect equanimity, knowing I wouldn't be here if they hadn't died out.  But that doesn't mean I'm equally nonchalant about human extinction or consoled thinking we'll be replaced by some organism just as adapted to its environment as we are to ours.
That some usages continue to be decried in spite of long standing is interesting, and I'm not sure what to say about it.  "Ain't" has been around forever as far as I can tell but never been considered standard, and I don't think it ever would be.  I'm pondering the singular "they," and I'll get back to you on that.
As for the future generations being perfectly intelligible to each other, that's all well and good, but I want to be intelligible to them.  Beowulf is unreadable except in translation to anyone not trained in Old English.  Chaucer is reasonably opaque to anyone not versed - pun intended - in Middle English.  Many people groan at how difficult Shakespeare is, and he's Modern English, and a popular writer of his time!  Austen and even Dickens seem creaky to us today.  I'm a writer, and I fondly and stupidly imagine someone picking up a book of mine in five hundred years and saying, "Dang, that Martin was pretty good."  This admittedly farfetched fantasy is even more farfetched if language changes as rapidly as it did between 900 and 1400.  This is why those 18th Century grammarians cooked up our grammatical rules in the first place.  They wanted to "fix" the language, hold it still, retard, and if possible, stop its change.

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