Ling 001 Prescriptivism versus Descriptivism
Part I: Grammar • We are going to talk about properties of grammars • When we talk about grammar (and language); a key distinction: • Prescriptive Grammar vs. • Descriptive Grammar • Bear in mind from the beginning the idea that any given “language” has many dialects, etc.; we’ll return to this theme.
Prescriptive Grammar • Rules of “good” or “proper” usage, which dictate what is “good grammar” and what is “bad grammar” Example: (1) She doesn’t know him. (2) She don’t know him. Example (1) is supposed to be “good”, while (2) is supposed to be “bad” • In reality, (2) is grammatical in some varieties of English, but not in others. Neither (1) nor (2) is inherently good or bad, but they are associated with distinct social evaluations
Why? Think about these examples a little more… • The basic problem with She don’t know him: it is not part of standard English. But it is part of some varieties/dialects of English • Is there a logic to this judgment? Technically, what the example shows is the absence of 3rd person singular agreement -s • Agreement morphemes on a verb mark who the subject of the verb is (in some languages…) • Is the absence of agreement somehow bad or illogical?
Agreement 1 Verbs show agreement in English; only for third person singular, for normal verbs: I eat We eat You eat You (all/guys) eat He/she/it eat-s They eat • The verb be has more forms; I am, you are, he/she/it is
Agreement 2 • But there are verbs that have no agreement • Consider modal verbs like can, would, etc. in standard English: Yes: No: • I can I can • You can You can • He/she/it can *He/she/it cans So absence of agreement is not inherently “bad”. English has very little agreement compared to some languages, but more than e.g. Swedish or Chinese, which have no agreement on the verb. • There’s nothing inherently better or worse about the “standard” variant
Descriptive Grammar • Definition: What native speakers know (tacitly) about their language. We have to distinguish between different variants of one language, versus things that are impossible in all varieties • Example: • Possibly grammatical according to style/register, dialect • I didn’t see anybody. • I didn’t see nobody. • Ungrammatical • *I did anybodyn’t see. • *See did nobody I not.
Descriptive Grammar, cont. • Descriptive grammar is the objective study of what speakers actually know. It does not presume to tell them how to use their language (faculty). • One can objectively study dialects or registers of a language that are not the ‘standard’ or most socially accepted variety • All of these varieties are equally complex as far as the scientific study of language is concerned • In order to focus on descriptive grammar later, we will examine aspects of prescriptive grammar, so that you’ll be able to distinguish the two when necessary.
Varieties of Prescriptive Grammar • The rules set out by prescriptive grammar have kind of a mixed character. Think about some of the different examples out there: • Standard (written) style: • Use 3rd person -s • No double negatives; etc. • Cases in which people differ: • Who/whom did you see at the park? • The data are/is interesting.
Varieties of Prescriptive Grammar, cont. • Changes that are resisted by some speakers: • Me and John saw that. versus • John and I saw that. • Inventions of so-called experts, or grammarians • Don’t split infinitives • Don’t strand prepositions • Use I shall but you will • We’ll look at some of this in more detail later
Attempts to Justify Prescriptive Grammar • In asserting the “correctness” of rules like don’t split infinitives, and so on, prescriptive grammarians resort to different means; for instance: • By decree: X is right because I say so. • Bogus historical reasoning: English should be like it used to be • Specious reasoning based on analogy to other languages: English should be like Latin • Dubious logic: The standard form is “more logical” than the non-standard form
Historical Reasoning • Why should English be like it used to be?? All languages change… Where would we stop? • Should we say (Chaucer quote): • He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde. he never yet no villainy not said Roughly: ‘He never used rough language’ • In addition to being almost incomprehensible, it shows double (triple even) negation, like I didn’t see nobody; which we’re not supposed to say, according to the prescriptivists.
Example: other languages • E.g. ‘no split infinitives”: • Ok: to go boldly • Supposedly bad: to boldly go • Why? Latin infinitives are one word: e.g. amare ‘to love’. This couldn’t be split by another word. • Why make English like Latin? Consider: • wehLla’-te. This means ‘I’ll have (a rope) there’ in the language Hupa (related to Navajo, spoken in CA) • Why not make English look like this? Or any other language for that matter? Linguistically speaking, this is the same type of thing; but clearly it doesn’t make sense. • The reason for trying to make English look like Latin isn’t scientific; it’s based on historical/cultural/political factors
Dubious appeals to ‘Logic’ • One prescriptivist claim is that the standard is “more logical” than the non-standard varieties. Really? Consider reflexive pronouns like ‘myself’: Reflexive Possessive St. myself my car yourself your car himselfhis car herself her car Non-St. myself my car yourself your car hisselfhis car herself her car --> In the non-standard variety, the reflexive form is always the same as the possessive; this is more systematic than the standard, where this is true in only three of the four cases above.
Justification, Continued • Consider the case of double negation again: • I didn’t see nobody • Think of this in the terms above: • There’s no reason to believe the decree that this is ‘bad’ • Historically this was found in English • Other languages (e.g. Spanish) have double negation as the standard • There’s nothing ‘less logical’ about having double negation (unless some other languages are entirely illogical, which is not the case).
Summary • Prescriptive claims are based either on force (expert’s decree), or on various forms of faulty reasoning, as illustrated above • Such claims can be put aside in the scienfic study of language; it is imperative that we are always clear about whether an aspect of grammar is descriptive or prescriptive. This sometimes is an issue when gathering data. We’ll talk about this a little bit later in the course. • Let’s apply what we’ve learned in an example…
An Example (for Practice) Ali G Andy Rooney Comedian Curmudgeon (ref: HBO, Da Ali G Show; Episode 12, “Realness”);
Outline • Andy Rooney is a “humorist” and a TV personality who complains about things • In his discussion with Ali-G, we’ll see that we can apply various aspects of the reasoning we’ve developed above • We’ll develop a score system for their exchange later…
Example, Part I • AG: Does you think the media has changed since you first got in it? • AR: “Does you think the media has changed?”? DO you think the media has changed… • AG: Whatever. Does… • AR (interrupts): No, it’s English. The English language would say “Do you think the media has changed?”, not “Does you think the media has changed.” <PAUSE, and with exasperation> Yes I think the media has changed.
Example, Part II • AG: So what sorts of things does you think the media should cover… • AR <interrupting>: “DO you think the media…” • AG: Um, yo, DO you think the media… I think it’s an English/American thing though, isn’t it? • AR: No no, no no. That’s English. The English language is very clear. I have fifty books on the English language if you would like to borrow one <gestures towards bookcase>
KeepingScore • The Does you think…? Part: Fact: The dialect of English (a London one) that Ali G is speaking/imitating does in fact have does with you. In this way it is an English/American thing. Since it is a perfectly good language, point to Ali G. Score: Ali G 1 Andy Rooney 0
Keeping Score, II 2) The “…the media has changed…” part. Fact: Real self-appointed grammar experts should know that media began life as a plural. So for a hardcore prescriptivist like Rooney, it should be “…the media have changed…”. Let’s say -1 to Rooney for choosing what to complain about on a totally arbitrary basis. +1 to Ali G for just keeping it real. Score: Ali G 2 Andy Rooney -1
MoreDialogue, Same Results From later in the interview, when Andy declares that it’s all over (and a few other things are said; anyway) • AG: That’s quite racialist to be honest. • AR: <scoffs> Oh, racist. “Racist’, not “racialist”. • AG: Yo, RACIALIST Another interesting point
ScorekeepingIII • Both racist and racialist appear to be used in England; sometimes in the same text: • “…Britain has been transformed into a racist society.” • “…work for anti-racialist organizations…” (quotes from M.A.E. Dummett, Frege: Philosophy of Language) So it is a perfectly good word in different varieties of English (the question of why the two vary is interesting). Score (Final): Ali G 3 Andy Rooney -1
InterimConclusions • The scientific study of language provides a theory of the structures found in the descriptive grammar of human language • Prescriptive grammar has no place in this enterprise • Throughout the course, our discussions of grammar will refer to the descriptive sense
What this does not mean • We are not saying that there is no such thing as unhelpful, uninformative, ambiguous, or difficult language; e.g. • Uninformative: • Q: What have you been doing lately? • A: Stuff. • Difficult (for memory reasons) • The rat the cat the dog bit chased ate the cheese. • Compare: • The rat the cat chased ate the cheese; or • This is the dog that bit the cat that chased the rat that ate the cheese
It also doesn’t mean that… • We are not saying that ‘anything goes’ in any context. It is also the case that some things are more appropriate in some contexts than in others: • E.g. starting a term paper with “inappropriate” words or phrases • Or being overly formal in an informal setting(e.g. on the phone, “An acquaintance with whom I spoke earlier alluded to similar possibilities at an earlier juncture.”) • Just keep in mind that these are points about (social) acceptability, not grammaticality in the sense of being derived by one’s linguistic competence.