Thursday, May 22, 2014

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism

On the internet and in newspapers, it's not uncommon to see rants about how our language is deteriorating. Words that meant one thing fifty years ago are used completely differently today. New words are made up and used as if they were cromulent. Kids these days speak grammatically uncorrectly.

And generally there will be responses to those about how that's a prescriptivist way of thinking, and prescriptivism is linguistically incorrect. Descriptivism is the only correct way of talking about language. Language is always changing, and words have no inherent meaning.

While in this context, the prescriptivists are usually completely wrong, I can't completely agree with descriptivists.

It's true that linguistics is descriptive. As a science, it has to be. The goal of linguistics is to study language to learn about how it works, and you can't learn about how something works by telling it to work differently. Kepler didn't discover the laws of planetary motion by insisting that they ought to orbit the sun in perfect circles.

But the scientific study of language is not the only way to interact with it. It's not even the most common way. The most common way of using language is the way we're using it right now - to communicate. Reading, writing, speaking, listening. And when you actually use a language, not just to study, but to communicate, you can't avoid being at least a little bit prescriptivist.

If you're trying to use words to communicate, you have to ascribe meaning to them. And if the meanings you ascribe to your words are different than the meanings the people you're trying to communicate with do, then you'll have a very hard time communicating. If you want to communicate with a large group of people, you have to get them to all use the same meanings for the same words. Words don't have inherent meaning, but it's a very useful fiction.