Word of Meth
Isn’t prescriptive linguistics a bit silly?



Linguists don’t know what they’re doing. Should they describe the way we do speak, or tell us how we should speak? To use the technical terms: descriptivism, or prescriptivism? These questions aren’t just academic, of course. Most people have some concept of “proper English”, and decide whether to follow or ignore it. Some say it is essential to cling onto “proper English” – whatever that is – and strongly resist any change to established “standards”. Cards on the table: I think this rigid, faux-intellectual conservatism, which claims to protect language, is actually very stupid, and possibly very dangerous. The prescriptivist philosophy is based on selective amnesia of English’s true history, and, as I’ll (eventually) argue in a future post, some pretty disturbing political motives too.

English isn’t perfect

A common justification of prescriptivism is based on what the linguist Jean Aitchison calls the “crumbling castle” view; the assertion that English has declined from a point of superior quality and clarity. No one’s quite sure when English reached this fabled point of perfection, and I’d argue we’re still waiting around for it. The imperfection of English is clear just by looking at something as fundamental as the alphabet, and the spelling system it lumbers us with. Although speaking English requires about 50 phonemes (or sounds), the alphabet includes just 26 letters. How can this severely understaffed alphabet hope to operate a spelling/pronunciation system which makes sense? If you were creating a perfect alphabet (and I’ve tried) you’d want 50+ unique glyphs each representing a single phoneme which could render language with more efficiency and less confusion.

The shoddiness of the alphabet is just one shortcoming which proves English is less than perfect. Other flaws are the lexical and semantic gaps in the language, and the inconsistency of verb endings even in our most common words. A lot of the fine structure attributed to English falls apart when you poke at it, as Mark Forsyth does in this video. If English is a castle, it’s either terribly designed, or just unfinished. The truth, of course, is that English was never built at all; it grew organically around its speakers, developing as chaotically and as randomly as the peoples who used it. At best, English is a half-decent accident; it just about stands up, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s some eighth wonder of the world which we must never change.

English isn’t permanent 

Change is nothing new to English, anyway. Arguably, English’s habit for change is its only constant. The spelling, sounds, and syntax of the language have changed so much over time that it’s naïve to simply compare the “old” with the “new”. The English we speak today is the culmination of countless tweaks and upgrades, and, obviously, every aspect of the language was new at one point. Change, far from being a modern threat to English, is English’s oldest friend; change has carried English through the centuries, though often in subtle or gradual ways which are not immediately apparent to us today.

There are many examples of changes to English which English speakers have since forgotten about in The Etymologicon, a book by Mark Forsyth, who just racked up his second mention in this post. The Etymologicon reveals that many of the words we think we know well have evolved considerably from their original meanings. For example, “probably”, or its Latin great-grandfather, once meant something was objectively provable by experiment, but over-optimistic people kept using it to describe things like astrology, and the word took on the watered down meaning we understand today. This semantic shift seems very similar to what’s currently happening to the word “literally” to me. Pedants opposing this latest change to English are conveniently forgetting how many modern English words were created from historical mutations in meaning. As always, old words change, and new words arrive to join them, although these new words aren’t always made to feel welcome.

So let’s chill out a bit

Killjoy prescriptivism is exactly the reason I’m not allowed to use “retweet” in Scrabble. Inevitably, someone will say it’s “not a word”. But when people say that, they usually, really, mean the word in question isn’t in the dictionary. This dictionary-bashing approach to new words is almost laughably irrational; it’s like saying an animal doesn’t exist until it’s been observed, classified, and named by a zoologist. Put simply, a word is some letters that mean something. That’s it. “Retweet” has a clear and distinct meaning for the millions of people who read, write, and speak it every day, so it’s a word, whatever your snooty Scrabble opponent says. Too many of us are irrationally anxious for confirmation from an official standard of English, but we should probably just take our own words for it. Language, like Scrabble, is more fun when you bend the rules a bit. 

And anyway, “retweet” is in the dictionary, though I don’t think we should see this as anything other than a formality; the zoologist catching up with the zoo. Dictionaries don’t define language. English is whatever we all say it is, with every word of every sentence shaping the way English sounds and looks. This isn’t to disregard linguistics; we need people to study the past and present of our language, however chaotic it proves to be. But we’d all have more fun if we treated English as a wild animal; fantastically alive and fascinatingly odd, but impossibly hard to pin down. The prescriptivist alternative, filling this wild beast with a dull tranquilizer and trapping it behind bars, is not only crude, but boring, and, I think, more than a little sinister. But more on that next time.

Part 1 of 2, supposedly (update: it took me over a month of procrastination, but I did part 2 in the end)