LINGUIST List 5.735

Sun 26 Jun 1994

Disc: Popularization of linguistics

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  1. Geoff Simmons, Prescriptivism and politics
  2. George Oliver, descriptive/prescriptive analogies
  3. Mary Ellen Ryder, Popularization of linguistics

Message 1: Prescriptivism and politics

Date: Wed, 22 Jun 1994 10:49:04 Prescriptivism and politics
From: Geoff Simmons <>
Subject: Prescriptivism and politics

Although the thread seems to have moved on to the subject of teaching
linguistics, I'd like to make a comment on prescriptivism that seems to
have been overlooked. We've noticed that large segments of the lay
public see fit to ignore linguists' arguments against prescriptivism,
and I think it's because there's more involved than just language.
Strange as it may seem, it's partly because of political ideologies,
or at least convictions about society and culture, that specialists
are not likely to overcome.

English teachers have been criticized for their prescriptivist habits,
but I remember when I was a schoolkid in the seventies, there was a lot
of talk about not penalizing kids for bad grammar in their essays, and
emphasizing that content is all that really matters. This attitude was
inspired at least in part by the sixties and all of its dreams of free-
dom and expression. Grammar rules were (if I may exaggerate the rhetoric)
a symbol of the Oppression of the Establishment. Language isn't for follow-
ing rules, it's for communication, man, it's for letting it all hang out;
and how can you let it all hang out if you're too uptight to let your
participles dangle?

Many people saw this as symbolic of the hedonism, anarchy, and disrespect
for your elders that the Evil Sixties meant for them. You can't let kids
get away with bad grammar, dammit, you have to teach them that there
are rules for proper behavior that have to be followed. If kids think
they're allowed to start their sentences with "Hopefully, ...", pretty
soon they'll start thinking they can do anything they want; like smoke
joints, or have sex.

Again, I'm exaggerating. It would be a cariacature to equate liberals
with anti-prescriptivists and conservatives with prescriptivists, but I
do believe that the cariacature has a kernel of truth. Interestingly enough,
William Safire the prescriptivist also happens to be one of America's
most conservative political commentators. Chomsky's political writings
probably give him apoplexy. Safire didn't say so, but I wouldn't be
surprised if, when he writes of "Chomskian linguists", he imagines
weird professors with beards.

Geoff Simmons
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Message 2: descriptive/prescriptive analogies

Date: Wed, 22 Jun 1994 01:19:32 descriptive/prescriptive analogies
From: George Oliver <>
Subject: descriptive/prescriptive analogies

 At the risk of repeating some ideas concerning the
prescriptive/descriptive dichotomy, I offer a partial discussion of this
issue that I make in an introductory grammar class, one taken by
non-linguists, including English Education majors. Since I have never seen
these particular analogies brought up, I thought they would be helpful to
others in such courses. I make two comparisons to my students--one
rhetorical, one scientific.
 First, the issue of the descriptive /prescriptive positions can
easily be put into a larger rhetorical perspective. We are arguing
rhetorically questions [stases] of "Definition" and "Value". I note to my
students that these positions can be translated as the difference between
"what is it that exists?" versus "is what exists desirable?" Such
questions are asked about many issues that have obvious social
implications. It is obvious that violence exists as a human trait; it is
also obvious that we are not satisfied as a society that its existence is
acceptable in its current form. It seems to me that many linguists are
arguing that the existence of some grammatical form is enough to justify
it, whereas non-linguists argue that that is not enough. What we as
linguists need to show is that the existence of some form may be desirable
since it pushes the language in some natural, desirable direction or
because it reveals something about the nature of language or because it's
more logical in some linguistically patterned sense. I realize that this
grossly oversimplifies the argument and assumes agreement on certain
premises, but the point is that we may have to do more than argue existence
as an end.
 Second, to contrast these two positions clearly, I make a couple of
analogies to my students. "What," I ask them, "is a weed?" It's amazing
how many students believe that plants can be objectively described as
weeds. Further questioning: Would a plant biologist classify any plants
as weeds? It becomes clear in such a discussion that prescriptive grammar
is akin to gardening: whatever does not "belong" according to some
arbitrary notion of acceptable plants (grammatical form) in a certain
context (sentence and situation) is a weed. While this analogy seems to
make prescriptive grammar appear benign, it is also clear that if such weed
pulling is done, it must be done with the understanding that the plant
being pulled is not bad, just unwanted for some reason. And it's the
reason that may *not* be benign.
 On the other hand, descriptive grammar is like doing botany: you
want to know what kinds of plants there are, and how they fit into the
whole botanical scheme of things. Every plant is fair game; in fact, every
plant is equally fascinating, because each has something to teach us. On
the other hand, you can learn a lot by studying just one plant, since all
plants have many properties in common.
 Most students' experience with grammar has only been with
linguistic "gardening." I make it clear that the goal here is to also make
them linguistic "botanists," as well. In fact, one could argue that a
gardener who is a botanist may be a better gardener for that knowledge (but
I don't push that one too hard).
 It's not difficult to find other similar analogies. What does it
mean when a meteorologist talks about having "bad weather" tomorrow? Is he
talking as a meteorologist? Is there such a thing as "bad" weather, or
just socially inconvenient weather?
 The advantage of such analogies is obvious. It is easier to
understand what drives prescriptivism/proscriptivism: Our attitudes toward
weeds and bad weather is directly related to our understanding of plants
and meteorology. We may still pull unwanted plants and rail against the
hurricane which destroyed our house, but ultimately we understand that
these are human reactions to the natural world, and that at issue is our
desire to control or bring order to things that seem at odds with our
interests, or seem uncontrolled or random.
 At the end of my course, many students understand that a real
perspective on language takes the drive out of their prescriptivism because
they no longer need to contain/control what they no longer misunderstand
and thus fear. In the end, botanist-gardeners may still do some judicious
weeding, but it will be clear that such actions are based on criteria that
have to do with a human sense of order, aesthetics, pragmatics, and that
such criteria may not match some other "natural" order. Now, at least, we
have a sense of what we're really arguing about.
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Message 3: Popularization of linguistics

Date: Wed, 22 Jun 94 14:25:15 MSPopularization of linguistics
From: Mary Ellen Ryder <>
Subject: Popularization of linguistics

Like Michael Kac, I was going to resist getting into this discussion (also
due to lack of time), but like him, I've finally succumbed. He mentioned
some teachers wanting ESL certificates having to take some linguistics. I
would like to add that here at Boise State University (situated in Idaho,
which is hardly the capital of the liberal-thinking world), students who
are planning to become regular English teachers (i.e., to native speakers)
in high school have to take an introduction to linguistics and one or two
other linguistics courses of their choice. I teach at least one section
of these every semester, and of course part of what I do is distinguish
between descriptive and prescriptive grammars. I point out that they
both have a place, since control of the standard dialect conveys social
power on the user, but that there is nothing intrinsically or objectively
better about the standard dialect.

My students, who are all English majors, usually approach the course with
caution, since they have no idea what it is about, but most of them seem
accepting of it as they go along (or else they are a lot more polite than
the average student!). So I think it is possible to present enough linguistics
to future teachers to be useful and relevant without antagonizing or confusing

As to teaching linguistics in the high schools, that is not yet happening in
Idaho, but a few of my students who have gone on to get their credentials
and teach have come back and told me that they are incorporating at least
some linguistic insights into their classroom. So I think there is a
real chance of some of our useful insights filtering out into the general
education system.

Mary Ellen Ryder
Department of English
Boise State University
Boise, Idaho
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