Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby Cainntear » Tue Dec 20, 2016 4:42 pm

galaxyrocker wrote:I also disagree with the necessity of a written corpus, because writing tends to follow certain standardized rules that are rarely used in speech Especially formal writing.

That's why a written corpus can't be a sole authority, but it's still needed. First of all, although we are influenced by prescriptivist rules in our writing, we are not controlled by them -- there is far more variation in our writing than prescriptivists would like to believe, and at times we are far more uniform in following rules that aren't in most prescriptivist grammars (e.g. my example about "which" for non-defining clauses and "that" for defining clauses), and that's all stuff that becomes apparent when we look at written corpora.

And when we're investigating written corpora, we can also decide to give extra weight to patterns that appear that do not follow old-school prescriptivist grammars, because they are occurring naturally despite writing conventions that favour a different pattern.
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby reineke » Thu Mar 09, 2017 4:08 pm

P is for Prescriptive

"I’m puzzled why my MA students have so much trouble getting their heads around the prescriptive- descriptive distinction. But, then, they’re probably puzzled as to why I think it matters so much.

Some defining might be in order. To quote from An A-Z of ELT, “If a prescriptive grammar is about how people should speak, a descriptive one is about how people do speak”. Thus, a prescriptivist will argue that taller than me is wrong, and that, for various abstruse reasons, it should be taller than I. A descriptive grammar would simply state (as does the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Biber, et al. 1999, p. 336) that, after as and than, “both nominative and accusative forms occur”, and that the accusative forms (e.g. taller than me) “are predominant…especially in conversation”. So, while prescriptivism is about opinions, descriptivism claims to be about facts.

Why do I think that the distinction matters? Well, because a lot of trainees, coming to ELT fresh, tend to associate grammar teaching with the kind of ‘good style guide’ grammar that they got at school. They think grammar teaching is going to be all about not starting sentences with ‘And’ or not ending them with a preposition. They may mistakenly see themselves as part of this tradition – as guardians of the cultural legacy enshrined as ‘proper English’. They may have been indoctrinated into the view that “students should be taught that correct speaking is evidence of culture; and that in order to speak correctly they must master the rules that govern the use of the language” (from an editorial in The Detroit Free Press, 1928, quoted in Fries, 1940).

However, this is not the problem with my students. Quite the opposite. The problem is that they come to associate all rules with prescriptivism. Thus, the rule that “to form the past tense of regular verbs, you add –ed to the base form of the verb” is considered prescriptive – simply because it’s a rule.

But this is to confuse rules-as-regularities with rules-as-regulations. Adding –ed is something we regularly do; saying taller than I is something we don’t do regularly, but which (according to prescriptivists) we ought to. Theirs is an attempt to regulate language use.

There’s an added problem, however, and that is: are student grammars really that descriptive? After all, the so-called pedagogic grammar – which purports to be a sub-set of the rules of descriptive grammar – is by definition selective. It selects some usages and ignores others. And the usages it selects are those that are considered standard – or the norm. But a norm is only a norm because it has been accepted by a speech community as such. It has been validated. What the grammar describes is what the speech community prescribes. As Cameron (1995) argues, “there is no escape from normativity”.

Moreover, in order to obviate the messiness of exceptions, pedagogic grammars tend to be more assertive than they need to be – often at the cost of accuracy. Rather than stating rules, they issue edicts. (Perhaps they should be called ‘pedantic grammars’). So we get:

Some verbs are used only in simple tenses. For example, “You cannot say ‘I am knowing’. You can only say I know. (Murphy, 1985, p. 6)

And they use the ‘we’ word a lot, too. So you get:

We can make negative sentences with nobody, nothing… With these words, we do not use not…:

He said nothing. (NOT He didn’t say nothing)

(Swan & Walter, 2001, p. 114).

Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Not just my students – there is a strong sense generally that description = good; prescription = bad. Nevertheless, there is one area of language teaching where most teachers are happy to be prescriptive, and that is vocabulary. We regularly caution students not to use words that are considered offensive or vulgar, even if they are commonly used by native-speakers. Dictionaries do the same. They shamelessly prescribe. And, because of this, they are excellent sources for tracking shifts in cultural values. Consider the two entries (below) from the first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1948) and the same entries from the 6th edition (2000).

This should serve to remind us that, as Cameron (op. cit) puts it, “we are all of us closet prescriptivists”. As she explains:

I have never met anyone who did not subscribe, in one way or another, to the belief that language can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, more or less ‘elegant’ or ‘effective’ or ‘appropriate’. Of course, there is massive disagreement about what values to espouse, and how to define them. Yet however people may pick and choose, it is rare to find anyone rejecting altogether the idea that there is some legitimate authority in language’ (p.9)."

https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/20 ... scriptive/

See also:

S is for Subjunctive

https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/20 ... bjunctive/
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby aokoye » Thu Mar 09, 2017 4:37 pm

reineke wrote:Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Is this whole post quoting a series of chapters, articles, and/or reviews or is some of this your commentary. The formatting makes it hard to tell. Block quotes are your friend.
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby reineke » Thu Mar 09, 2017 8:00 pm

aokoye wrote:
reineke wrote:Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Is this whole post quoting a series of chapters, articles, and/or reviews or is some of this your commentary. The formatting makes it hard to tell. Block quotes are your friend.


Q is for Quote marks

"Quote marks, after all, are not innocent bystanders in the processes of text creation and interpretation. Traditionally, of course, they separated quoted matter from the writer’s own words. Hence, they’re called (variously) quote marks, quotation marks, speech marks and so on. But they’ve come to fulful a number of other functions too..."

https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/20 ... ote-marks/
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby aokoye » Thu Mar 09, 2017 10:56 pm

reineke wrote:
aokoye wrote:
reineke wrote:Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Is this whole post quoting a series of chapters, articles, and/or reviews or is some of this your commentary. The formatting makes it hard to tell. Block quotes are your friend.


Q is for Quote marks

"Quote marks, after all, are not innocent bystanders in the processes of text creation and interpretation. Traditionally, of course, they separated quoted matter from the writer’s own words. Hence, they’re called (variously) quote marks, quotation marks, speech marks and so on. But they’ve come to fulful a number of other functions too..."

https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/20 ... ote-marks/

Do I need to break out Grice's Maxims?
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby tastyonions » Thu Mar 09, 2017 11:19 pm

reineke has been quoting that blog nonstop the past few days, though in this last case it added nothing more than snark to an otherwise smoothly running conversation.
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby aokoye » Thu Mar 09, 2017 11:44 pm

Never mind that there aren't an appropriate number of quotation marks in the post...
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby Systematiker » Fri Mar 10, 2017 12:55 am

I stopped reading this thread when it annoyed me back when like page 4 was current, but since it popped up today...

You all realize there have been three or four disparaging comments (at least) about a position with a comparison to religious belief, as if religion or religious belief were inherently a negative?

I'm not at all interested in starting a debate about religion or any particular religion. I'd just like to point out that the tone of this thread has demonstrated "in-group" markers that I'm not sure every participant is aware that they're doing.

Personally, I'm ok - but since the superiority/discrimination concept has come up a couple of times, I thought it fitting to point it out, so we can all be aware of what presuppositions we bring to our discussion.


Edit: a subjunctive, no less
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby Cainntear » Fri Mar 10, 2017 7:08 pm

Systematiker wrote:You all realize there have been three or four disparaging comments (at least) about a position with a comparison to religious belief, as if religion or religious belief were inherently a negative?

I don't believe there have been any such posts in this thread.

The use of the term "Ayatollah" as an insult is not about religion in a general sense -- it could quite easily be said by a Christian, a Jew or an atheist.

The objection to the term "dogma" as being disrespectful of a reasoned intellectual position is not anti-religious: not all religions are highly dogmatic and many encourage reason, intellectualism and scientific enquiry; and those that are extremely dogmatic don't want adherents to engage in reason, intellectualism or scientific enquiry -- just as equally dogmatic secular movements are dogmatic and discourage reason and intellectualism (e.g. Stalinism).

My comments on moral relativism were certainly not anti-religious, as it the theological objection to moral relativism starts from the position that God is eternal and unchanging, so therefore morality (being God's law) is unchanging. But if there is no god, then morality is a human, social construct and necessarily relative.
Obviously that debate would be off-topic, because whether or not there is a god is not about languages (as well as a futile argument as there can be no proof or disproof of God -- even the Bible says as much).
However, what we do know beyond doubt is that our modern languages are not an unchanging thing handed down by a god, but a social construct, and therefore there is no "absolute linguistics" -- only "relative linguistics".
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Re: Descriptivism, prescriptivism and the evolution of language

Postby YtownPolyglot » Fri Mar 10, 2017 8:37 pm

A certain amount of descriptivism and prescriptivism are needed in any learning situation.

I have taught English as a second language, and it is impossible to keep learners away from a healthy share of English that would curl the hair of any descriptivist. Do you want to understand the English on the test and in the book, or do you want to be able to understand the people around you or both?

The "correct" uses of language often preserve distinctions that are lost on some speakers. If enough people are perfectly happy without those distinctions, the language evolves in a direction of simplicity rather than precision.
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