Language Like a Free Market

Several of us seem to be interested in language, so I thought I'd post a link to editor and language columnist for The Economist Lane Greene's thoughts on the descriptivist / prescriptivist divide and the ways in which language operates like a free market.

Some quick excerpts:

Decades before the rise of social media, polarisation plagued discussions about language. By and large, it still does. Everyone who cares about the topic is officially required to take one of two stances. Either you smugly preen about the mistakes you find abhorrent – this makes you a so-called prescriptivist – or you show off your knowledge of language change, and poke holes in the prescriptivists’ facts – this makes you a descriptivist. Group membership is mandatory, and the two are mutually exclusive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. I have two roles at my workplace: I am an editor and a language columnist. These two jobs more or less require me to be both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist. When people file me copy that has mistakes of grammar or mechanics, I fix them (as well as applying The Economist’s house style). But when it comes time to write my column, I study the weird mess of real language; rather than being a scold about this or that mistake, I try to teach myself (and so the reader) something new. Is this a split personality, or can the two be reconciled into a coherent philosophy? I believe they can.


Descriptivists – that is, virtually all academic linguists – will point out that semantic creep is how languages work. It’s just something words do: look up virtually any nontechnical word in the great historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which lists a word’s senses in historical order. You’ll see things such as the extension of decimate happening again and again and again. Words won’t sit still. The prescriptivist position, offered one linguist, is like taking a snapshot of the surface of the ocean and insisting that’s how ocean surfaces must look.

Be that as it may, retort prescriptivists, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. ...

Read on for a discussion of changes in English in the Great Vowel Shift, the evolution of the word buxom, the loss of Old English case endings, and the ways spontaneous order does its work in a language, much like it does its work in an economy.


Grim said...

Great piece.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I started as a prescriptivist and became a descriptivist. Usage by an adult native speaker cannot really be wrong. What we call wrongness is usually a matter of dialect.


Language usage is also signalling about a dozen things, not all of which are mere snobbishness or preference for one's own group's speech. We signal that we care about the formality of a situation. We signal that we know the specific rules a situation. We signal that we want to be one with our audience, not setting ourselves apart - or the opposite. I am very modern and informal in most of my punctuation, and that is intentional. My vocabulary, pronunciation, and word-order tend to be traditional, even archaic, and that is intentional.

Tom said...

My one disappointment about the article is that he never really discusses how to be both effectively.

Linguists must be descriptivists. Their job is to observe language and describe it. It's baked into the definition of their field. You cannot be a prescriptivist linguist any more than you can be a pacifist infantryman.

However, too many assume that because linguists are descriptivists, everyone else should be too. It can't work that way. Editors & English teachers exist for a good reason, and they must take a prescriptivist stance to do their jobs, which is to help people to communicate clearly. We all depend on a commonly understood grammar and vocabulary, on rules for spelling and punctuation, in order to communicate.

The problem with prescriptivists is that many prescriptivist rules in English don't make sense; they were imported from Latin, which is a very different language, or they were invented from some famous person's list of language annoyances, or some influential editor decided at some point that what everyone was saying wasn't logical, or some such thing. For example, the "rule" that you can't end a sentence with a preposition was intentionally imported from Latin and initially imposed by a small but influential group of prescriptivists; it was never a natural part of the English language, and it doesn't belong in the English language.

Prescriptivists need to learn from descriptivists, etymologists, and language historians, but they shouldn't give up the fight of teaching people how to communicate effectively.