While relaxing on Pender Island, we finished reading Jack Lynch’s book The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, which I highly, highly recommend to teachers, linguists, and anyone even remotely interested in language. The book is essentially a history of English prescriptivism since the 17th Century. It traces the history of dictionaries, grammars, readers, and spellers of English over the last several hundred years. That probably sounds utterly boring, but it’s actually a fascinating book, and he’s a good writer.
What I liked best about the book is that Lynch manages to give a sympathetic treatment of both the prescriptivist and descriptivist viewpoints, while calling them both to task for their errors. Of course, like most linguists, I’m glad to see any book that educates people about prescriptivism and its problems. For those who don’t know, prescriptivism is the idea that there is one right way to speak English, and that all other ways are incorrect. It’s modern representatives include word mavens like William Safire (not really modern, since he passed away a few months ago), Howard Jacobson, and Lynne Truss, and books like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. It’s also the perspective that most people learn in school. (If you think that “grammar” means learning a bunch of rules about how to write that don’t make any sense to you, you probably got a prescriptivist approach to English.)
Prescriptivism often comes mixed up with political conservatism (Really); with the assumption that non-standard dialects are in fact degenerate (that is, not capable of expressing the same range of ideas as standard English); and with the assumption that language changes are always for the worst and presage the demise of English and probably of civilization as we know it. Unfortunately, it’s also often pushed by people who don’t really have a deep understanding of the grammar of English, and so it includes a lot of so-called ‘rules’ of English that have no basis in history and do nothing to make the language more precise or clear.
Linguists take a different approach to language, which is called descriptivism. The idea behind descriptivism is that all languages and dialects are created equal. That is, they are equally rich, more or less equally complex, and equally capable of expressing any thought any person might want to express, and that correct language is determined by how people actually speak, not by how some experts say they should speak. (Note that this does not mean every thought can be expressed equally efficiently in every language, nor does it mean that any given word will have an exact equivalent, with all the same connotations, in any other language — your culture really does affect what sorts of words you bother to keep around in your language. On the other hand, if you suddenly find a need for a new word, every language gives you ways to either make one up or borrow it from another language. If the need is persistent enough, the word will stick around and become part of your language. English didn’t have a word for kangaroo until English speakers went to Australia, saw kangaroos, and wanted a word for them, which they got by borrowing the word from the Guugu Yimidhirr.) No one can prove that all languages really, truly are created equal, but we’ve yet to find any evidence of a language that isn’t rich enough to express any idea its speakers might want to express (and new ones they haven’t thought of yet), so I, at least, am content with the assumption that languages are all equally good.
But the thing is, descriptivists tend to miss (or willfully ignore) the fact that when we say languages are all created equal, we mean that they are all linguistically equal. This does not mean that they are all socially equal. And this is one of Lynch’s big points. While prescriptivists are wrong to think that every change in the language is a sign of decay, or to think that they even can control how English evolves, descriptivists who think we should live in a world where no one is judged for the way they speak are living in a fantasy world. In other words, non-standard English isn’t wrong, but it can be inappropriate in certain contexts, and it is appropriate to help people figure out when they need to use formal English, when they need to pay attention to the shibboleths of formal grammar (even when the rules really are pointless), and how to use those formal rules. What is not appropriate is telling people that those formal rules are the only way to speak, and that all other kinds of speech are wrong.