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A Prescriptive View of Language


For educational professionals to confidently adopt a modern view of language variation, they must understand how it contrasts with traditional prescriptivism and how it can further their pedagogical goals. The transition to this understanding may be difficult given the current state of language knowledge.

The general public’s knowledge of language variation is comparable to previous centuries’ beliefs about a terracentric universe. Common sense, supported and enforced by institutional authority, was that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the constellations and other heavenly bodies circled the earth.

This assumption is where astrology developed (e.g. people’s signs are the constellations they were born under). The transition from a terracentric belief to our modern understanding of astronomy was a complex and long process, and even today, astrology holds sway.

Common beliefs about language are undergirded by comparable myths: The primary myth is that a supremely correct form exists for all contexts and times; in previous centuries, this belief extended to the superiority of some languages, e.g. Latin, to all other languages). Linguists have a vastly different notion of language varieties and the goodness of their forms. Western societies are currently in transition from a traditional belief to a scientific belief.

Two signs of this transformation have become obvious to linguists who deal with public opinion:

  1. People more readily accept that no one language is inherently supreme
  2. People more readily accept that language change is not decay. Were the other tenants of variationists’ findings to be taken up by educational professionals, such as the legitimacy of language variation, then the educational goals of literacy and writing would be accomplished more completely and efficiently.

Language variation, as a term, has played an important role both for variationists and other linguists. For other kinds of linguists, the term usually refers to variation between languages, i.e. nonmutually intelligible dialects. In the generativist view, this kind of variation is hypothetically controlled by innate parameters which are set during the language acquisition process. For example, one parameter would set the head of a phrase either at the start or the end of the phrase: In English, verbs come before their objects, but in Japanese, verbs come after their objects. This approach allows languages typology along such parameters, the totality of which represents their possible range of variation.

The traditional prescriptivist view does not allow for any kind of legitimate language variation. One of the earliest, and perhaps most dire, citations of dialect discrimination based on this tradition is the story of shibboleth. The term itself meant “ear of corn” in the Old Testament story of Judges (xii.4-6), but variant pronunciation was the telling feature. Soldiers of Gilead were defending the fords of the Jordan against deserting Ephraimites. To test which soldiers were really Ephraimites, the Gileadites made them say shibboleth: “Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over,’ the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said: ‘No,’ they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth,’ and he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.” The linguistic difference between Shibboleth and Sibboleth is the same as that between “shoe” and “Sue”: The tongue is slightly further back on the roof of the mouth in the “sh” form. Death awaited those who did not make the proper choice of tongue placement.

This story contains the basic elements of the traditional prescriptivist approach. First, there are separate social groups, be the separation tribal, ethnic, socioeconomic, or some other form. Second, the basis for judgment is social, not linguistic: The Ephraimites were not killed because the “s” sound was painful to hear; certainly the Gileadites had “s” s in their language. The Ephraimites were killed because they were Ephraimites; the “s” -form of shibboleth was simply a sociolinguistic stereotype. Third, the standards for the prescriptive judgment are beyond questioning.

Traditional prescriptivism has taken up all three of these elements since its current social rules were formulated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many prescriptivist doctrines of today were established in that early period, often in erroneous but well-intentioned comparisons between English and Latin: Do not split infinitives (e.g. Our mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before); Do not strand prepositions (e.g. We have much to be thankful for).

The pedagogical trouble with traditional prescriptivists doctrines is not the inherent goodness of the advice, but the assumptions about language when the advice is delivered. A bland prescriptivist rule for writing is ‘capitalize the first letter of the first word of a sentence’; It is fine advice for adhering to normal practice in a particular genre, that of formal writing. But it would be wrong to assume that if such capitalization did not occur, language would be broken or communication could not be possible. A social fashion would not be followed, but the rhetorical and communication functions of language would continue on unhindered in the face of this written variation.

The variationist educational goal is to help people understand the natural linguistic equality of all languages and help them establish teaching tactics that incorporate a scientifically sound view of language. The new assumption for educational purposes must eschew several components of traditional prescriptivism (traditionally prescriptive language) (see also Hazen, Kirk. English LIVEs: Language in Variation Exercises. In Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck (eds.), Language In The Schools. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. 181-9. 2005)


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