Linguistic prescription

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In linguistics, prescription denotes two normative practices: the codification of a grammar, and formal usage rules — how a language should be spoken and written. To establish a Standard language, prescriptive usage rules establish spelling, grammar, and syntax standards; and what usages are socially proper and politically correct. Nonetheless, linguistic prescriptivism is universal — if usage preferences are conservative, prescription might (appear to) be resistant to language change, if the usage preferences are radical, prescription usually produces neologisms.[1]

Prescriptive linguistics is contrasted with descriptive linguistics, which observes and records how language is practiced. The basis of linguistic research is text (corpus) analysis and field studies; yet description includes each researcher’s observations of his and her (own) language usage. Despite apparent opposition, prescription and description (how language should be used, and how language is used) exist in a complementary dynamic tension of mutual linguistic support.[2]

Contents

[edit] Purpose

The principal purpose of prescriptive linguistics is establishing a Standard language, by formally defining and deriving a standard dialect from the written and spoken usages common to the language populace. The purpose of the Standard language is inter-regional communication among speakers of different dialects of the standard language employed as a lingua franca.[3]

[edit] Authority

Prescriptive Authority: The Royal Spanish Academy, Madrid.

Prescriptive linguistics derive from an established Authority whose language usage is respected, abided, and emulated, by a given speech community. Such a linguistic authority usually resides in a book; for the English language, the exemplar is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Fowler (1858–1933), an academic and writer whose intellectual authority defined the British English standard language for most of the twentieth century;[4] for the German language, Fowler’s counterpart is the Duden (1880) grammar; the 24th edition is in 12 volumes.

Prescriptive Authority

The concept of linguistic authority is particular to the use and user of the language, for example, the formal house style manual of standardized spelling, grammar, and typographic usages of a publishing house. Moreover, despite lexicographers’ descriptive function as recorders of the language as used, language communities use dictionaries as prescriptive authorities determining standard and the non-standard usages, for example, the popular grammar book Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (2003), by Lynne Truss, proposes stricter US and UK adherence to prescriptive punctuation as registered in a dictionary.

Unlike the linguistically un-regulated Anglophone world, other language communities do formally prescribe language usage:

[edit] Origins

Linguistic prescriptivism originates a Standard language when a society establishes social stratification and socio-economic hierarchy, in which instance, the spoken and written language usages of the Authorities (State, Military, Church) are preserved as the standard language to emulate for social success; see social class. To distinguish itself from contemporary colloquial language, standard language usage includes archaisms and honorific colours. Like-wise, the style of language used in ritual also differs from quotidian speech.[5]

Standard language: Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese Han logograms.

When a culture develops a writing system, the prescriptive linguistics that established (codified) the standard spoken language then establishes the standard written language for unambiguous communications — given the absence of conversation, i.e. the speaker and his or her facial and body language, which eliminate ambiguity in spoken language. The codification of written speech is achieved with a grammar establishing the parts of speech, register, diction, et cetera. Literacy (an alphabet), usually was propagated by religion; Western Christianity propagated the Latin alphabet; Eastern Orthodoxy, the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets; Judaism, the Hebrew alphabet, Islam, the Arabic alphabet, and Hinduism, the Devanagari script;[6] and in China, the Han character logograms are the standard writing language, and from which derive the Korean and Japanese writing systems. Furthermore, the establishment of a prescribed (Standard) language is supported by the political economy of the publishing business, wherein books represent a sunk cost, thus, changes in written language usage are an economic hazard that might render them obsolete, hence does writing promote the preservation of archaic usages; see Literary language.

Standard language: Ptolemaic hieroglyphics from the Temple of Kom Ombo.

Linguistically, a government bureaucracy tends to prescriptivism (standardized language) for functional continuity, thus each bureau uses a prescribed (standard) language. In this respect, official publications (i.e. writs), established the precedent usages that are “bureaucratese”, the language of bureaucrats.[7] Such prescriptivism dates from ancient Egyptian (ca. 3400 BC), wherein bureaucrats preserved the spelling of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (2080–1640 BC ) into the Ptolemaic period (305–30 BC) in the standard usage of Egyptian hieroglyphics.[8]

The language of a society, therefore, is a stylistic continuum, wherein privileged language, used in legal, military, and religious ceremony, is valued above regional varieties and local dialects. When the valuation of usage is very marked, the discontinuity between the high style (standard) and the low style (vernacular) of a language, there arises diglossia (two tongues), in which instance the privileged language requires formal study to master, and is not readily intelligible to the untutored, who only speak, read, and write the vernacular. Given the effort required for mastery, a writer who has mastered Chinese calligraphy or English spelling might resist its devaluation via (over-) simplification.[9]

[edit] Sources

From the earliest attempts at prescription in classical times, grammarians have observed what is in fact usual in a prestige variety of a language and based their norms upon this. Modern prescription, for example in school textbooks, draws heavily on the results of descriptive linguistic analysis. Because prescription is generally based on description, it is very rare for a form to be prescribed which does not already exist in the language.

However, prescription also involves conscious choices, privileging some existing forms over others. Such choices are often strategic, aimed at maximising clarity and precision in language use. Sometimes they may be based on entirely subjective judgments about what constitutes good taste. Sometimes there is a conscious decision to promote the language of one class or region within a language community, and this can become politically controversial—see below.

Sometimes, prescription is motivated by an ethical position, as with the prohibition of swear words. The desire to avoid language which refers too specifically to matters of sexuality or toilet hygiene may result in a sense that the words themselves are obscene. Similar is the condemnation of expletives which offend against religion, or more recently of language which is not considered politically correct.[10]

It is sometimes claimed that in centuries past, English prescription was based on the norms of Latin grammar, but this is doubtful. Robert Lowth is frequently cited as one who did this, but, in fact, he specifically condemned "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language".[11] It is true that analogies with Latin were sometimes used as substantiating arguments, but only when the forms being thus defended were in any case the norm in the prestige form of English.

[edit] Problems

While many[who?] people would agree that some kinds of prescriptive teaching or advice are desirable[citation needed], prescription easily becomes controversial. Many linguists are highly skeptical of the quality of advice given in many usage guides, particularly when the authors are not qualified in languages or linguistics. Some popular books on English usage written by journalists or novelists bring prescription generally into disrepute by making basic errors in grammatical analysis. Even when practiced by competent experts (as in text-books written by language teachers), giving wise advice is not always easy, and things can go badly wrong. A number of issues pose potential pitfalls.

One of the most serious of these is that prescription has a tendency to favour the language of one particular region or social class over others, and thus militates against linguistic diversity. Frequently, a standard dialect is associated with the upper class, as for example Great Britain's Received Pronunciation. RP has now lost much of its status as the Anglophone standard, being replaced by the dual standards of General American and British NRP (non-regional pronunciation). While these have a more democratic base, they are still standards which exclude large parts of the English-speaking world: speakers of Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Australian English, or AAVE may feel the standard is slanted against them. Thus prescription has clear political consequences. In the past, prescription was used consciously as a political tool; today, prescription usually attempts to avoid this pitfall, but this can be difficult to do.

A second problem with prescription is that prescriptive rules quickly become entrenched and it is difficult to change them when the language changes. Thus there is a tendency for prescription to be excessively conservative. When in the early 19th century, prescriptive use advised against the split infinitive, the main reason was that this construction was not in fact a frequent feature of the varieties of English favoured by those prescribing. Today it has become common in most varieties of English, and a prohibition is no longer sensible. However, the rule endured long after the justification for it had disappeared. In this way, prescription can appear to be antithetical to natural language evolution, although this is usually not the intention of those formulating the rules.

A further problem is the difficulty of defining legitimate criteria. Although prescribing authorities almost invariably have clear ideas about why they make a particular choice, and the choices are therefore seldom entirely arbitrary, they often appear arbitrary to others who do not understand or are not in sympathy with the criteria. Judgments which seek to resolve ambiguity or increase the ability of the language to make subtle distinctions are easier to defend. Judgments based on the subjective associations of a word are more problematic.

Finally, there is the problem of inappropriate dogmatism. While competent authorities tend to make careful statements, popular pronouncements on language are apt to condemn. Thus wise prescriptive advice may identify a form as non-standard and suggest it be used with caution in some contexts; repeated in the school room this may become a ruling that the non-standard form is automatically wrong, a view which linguists reject. (Linguists may accept that a form is incorrect if it fails to communicate, but not simply because it diverges from a norm.) A classic example from 18th-century England is Robert Lowth's tentative suggestion that preposition stranding in relative clauses sounds colloquial; from this grew a grammatical dogma that a sentence should never end with a preposition.

For these reasons, some writers have argued that linguistic prescription is foolish or futile; Samuel Johnson, commented as follows on the tendency of some prescription to resist language change

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French language has visibly changed under the inspection of the academy; the stile of Amelot's translation of Father Paul is observed by Le Courayer to be un peu passé; and no Italian will maintain that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

- Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language (Project Gutenberg)

[edit] Prescription and description

Linguistic description (observation and reportage of how language is practised) establishes conceptual categories without establishing formal usage rules (prescriptions), about which the introduction to the Merriam–Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) reports that: “Possible is sometimes considered to be an absolute adjective”. The discipline of modern linguistics originated in the 16th and 17th centuries from the comparative method of lexicography that was principally about classical languages, the results of which formed the bases, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of contemporary linguistics; by the early 20th century, descriptive research concentrated upon modern languages.

In the article “Realistic Prescriptivism” (2008), Ghil'ad Zuckermann “provides a critical analysis of the Academy of the Hebrew Language’s mission, as intriguingly defined in its constitution: ‘to direct the development of Hebrew in light of its nature’.” In describing several volte-faces of the Hebrew Academy, Zuckermann said that the Academy “has begun submitting to the ‘real world’, accommodating its decrees to the parole of native Israeli [Hebrew] speakers, long regarded as ‘reckless’ and ‘lazy’.”[12]

The principal opposition to linguistic prescription is the preference (establishment) of a regional variety or local dialect as the Standard language for the nation (language community), because it then subordinates the other varieties and dialects to being “non-standard language”, usually not an impartial circumstance.[13] As such, the Standard dialect usually is associated with an upper class, e.g. Received Pronunciation (RP) in the UK. In the event, since the end of the Second World War (1939–45), RP was replaced as the Anglophone standard by the dual standards of General American in the US, and British NRP (non-regional pronunciation), in the UK.[14][15]

Despite the demotic intent of General American and Non-regional Pronunciation Englishes as “standard language”, upon being established as such, they are prescriptively exclusive of other Anglophone folk languages such as Scottish English, Hiberno-English, Australian English, and African-American Vernacular English, whose speakers might take umbrage at such a descriptive prescription; hence, despite apparent opposition, prescription and description exist in a complementary dynamic tension of mutual linguistic support.[16]

Samuel Johnson, ca. 1772.

Nonetheless, in the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), about the inflexibility of some linguistic prescriptions, the lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709–84), said:

When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, and clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength. The French language has visibly changed under the inspection of the academy; the stile of Amelot’s translation of Father Paul is observed, by Le Courayer to be un peu passé; and no Italian will maintain that the diction of any modern writer is not perceptibly different from that of Boccace, Machiavel, or Caro.

Preface to a Dictionary of the English Language (Project Gutenberg)

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 p. 286
  2. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 p. 286
  3. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 pp. 979, 982–83
  4. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 p. 414
  5. ^ See, generally, Marianne Mithun, The Languages of Native North America (Cambridge University Press, 1999; ISBN 0-521-23228-7) for North American examples of ritual speech.
  6. ^ David Diringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind (1947; South Asia, reprinted 1996); ISBN 81-215-0748-0
  7. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 p. 167
  8. ^ Allen, James P., Middle Egyptian — An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs, (Cambridge University Press, 1999) ISBN 0-521-65312-6
  9. ^ For more, see simplified Chinese character; English spelling reform.
  10. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 p. 794
  11. ^ A Short Introduction to English Grammar, p. 107, condemning Richard Bentley's "corrections" of some of Milton's constructions.
  12. ^ See p. 135 of 'Realistic Prescriptivism': The Academy of the Hebrew Language, its Campaign of 'Good Grammar' and Lexpionage, and the Native Israeli Speakers,Israel Studies in Language and Society 1.1 (2008), pp. 135-154, by Ghil'ad Zuckermann.
  13. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 pp. 984–85
  14. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 pp. 850–53
  15. ^ Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Second Edition, Ernest Gowers, Ed., Oxford University Press:1965, pp. 505–06
  16. ^ The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Tom McArthur, Ed., Oxford University Press:1992 p. 286

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