The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

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.

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4 thoughts on “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

  1. Thanks for the kind words on my Lexicographer’s Dilemma — some of the smartest observations I’ve seen on the book yet. Most of the journalistic reviews seem to take from it only the message that there are no rules, and you’re free to do what you want, which wasn’t at all what I was trying to get at. Oh, well.

    • superplexa says:

      You’re welcome! Unlike most journalists, I don’t have to sensationalize my writing to get readers, nor do I have to pretend to be “unbiased.” After all, this is my blog, I have no editor, and I can say whatever the hell I want here. Also, I have a background in linguistics, so I have a rather more nuanced view of the issues than most journalists. (On the other hand, I didn’t know anything about the history until I read the book. Fascinating stuff.)

      I really did need to hear what you had to say on the value of prescriptivism. That clarified my thinking a great deal.

  2. I too found The Lexicographer’s Dilemma to be one of the best books I’ve read recently, and it did contain quite a bit that was new to me. As a committed descriptivist, and as the individual with the most permissive idiolect I know, I likewise enjoyed reading much of Lynch’s defence of prescription—as long as prescription is kept situationally reasonable and contextually appropriate. His injunction to all of us in the linguistic world to reexamine our preconceived notions was, as Superplexa pointed out above, a terrific wake-up call that helped clarify much of my own thinking about linguistic prescriptivism (but I remain skeptical about one feature of Lynch’s book; I shall return to this point).

    As for the link between linguistic prescriptivism and social/political conservatism, the case of the Oakland school board and “ebonics” in 1994–5 is one of the most telling incidents of recent history, and I found the part of the last chapter where this episode was recounted and analyzed to be one of the strongest and most important in the book. One of the best expositions of the whole saga from both linguistic and political perspectives is the 2004 paper “Ideology, power, and linguistic theory” (PDF) by that tireless scourge of the prescriptivists Geoff Pullum. I highly recommend this paper for a penetrating look at some of the forces that make prescriptivists tick.

    There were a few moments in the book, however, where I couldn’t help but wonder whether the author wasn’t trying a bit too hard to split the difference between prescriptivists and descriptivists, as it were, and to find some “middle ground” that often, in my view, did not need to be searched for. As for a case such as Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, yes, I agree that abandoning all usage notes and markers is going a bit too far, and represents a fundamental misunderstanding of one of the main reasons for the existence and utilization of dictionaries. But in my experience, descriptive linguists just generally aren’t the sort who believe that people who mix up homophones should have bricks thrown through their windows, or that people who write it’s when they mean its “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” Yes, yes, these examples may have been intended as “jokes” (though marked by a distinct lack of that element called “humour” (or even “humor”) traditionally considered advisable for inclusion in “jokes”), but the reality is that it is prescriptive attitudes which dominate in schools, in the media, in government, in public policy, and elsewhere, and which thrive especially in settings characterized by power imbalance. One only has to look at the “ebonics” controversy and its racist subtext to see this power imbalance in action. Is this “middle ground” on the prescriptive/descriptive linguistics wars really going to bring peace to the people who believe, as Lynch quotes David Crystal rightly pointing out, “that we should all become linguistic fundamentalists?”

    All in all, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma was a fantastic read and will surely be on my list of recommended linguistics books for years to come, alongside Pullum’s The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and his and Mark Lieberman’s Far From the Madding Gerund (notice a pattern here?). Lynch has written a volume that is not only informative and clear and brilliant, but side-splittingly funny to boot. Well done.

    • superplexa says:

      I’d also add Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, even though there’s controversy over some of his ideas. It’s a great read, extremely clear, and besides, it’s the book that got me into linguistics. And anything by David Crystal.

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