Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe

Prescriptive grammar just punishes people for talking normally
Prescriptive grammar punishes people for talking normally.

This post follows on the 4 points I learned about people from the linguistic theories of Prof. Noam Chomsky. Please refer to “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Background” for a full introduction to this idea, and to the first in this series, “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Grammar is in every brain.”

2. We describe grammar, we don’t prescribe it.
Rules such as “no split infinitives” or “There’s no such word as ‘ain’t’” don’t exist in the linguistics that I study. Such rules are called “prescriptive” because they prescribe a particular way of speaking that goes against how people actually speak. The linguistic school to which I belong does not impose a certain way of speaking; instead, we aim to describe the way people actually speak. In this way, everyone who speaks a language is  valued equally in how he or she speaks.

Most often, one creates certain rules around writing that one then imposes on speaking. For example, one would say that “got” as in “I got hurt” would be incorrect, and that “I was hurt,” is better. However, every English speaker (at least in the US) uses this expression.

Thus prescriptive grammar comes from people who are educated in a particular code, different from how people grow up speaking. The code arises in an influential, powerful body, and has the power to divide the “educated” from the “uneducated” or “illiterate.” You can tell immediately who is “in” and who is “out” by whether they speak the way you’re “supposed” to talk. I don’t believe that there are people who “don’t know their own language.” Those people simply don’t know the language of the critic.

Sometimes prescriptive grammar works against the expressiveness of spoken language. In spoken US English the word “get” comes in many varied expressions. We have two expression with forms of “get” that can’t be written. “I got to go to the store” means “I had the opportunity to go to the store.” In contrast, “I gotta go to the store” means “I’m obligated to go to the store.” The first is positive and the second is negative. Only the second one exists in written English—and probably not all prescriptive grammarians would even allow the first one. By describing, rather than prescribing, I learn an interesting facet of US English.

This approach causes complications sometimes. For example, Somali consists of multiple, distinct dialects. Written Somali, however, is based on a single dialect (more or less). When someone corrects me in Somali, sometimes I’m wondering if they’re aiming me towards how people actually speak, or towards how people “ought” to speak. If the latter, I may end up with an odd, stilted accent, though I’d like to speak as folks normally do.

Non-standard languages are interesting because they tend not to have prescriptive grammar. No one tells me how I’m “supposed” to speak Swiss German. This is likely because Swiss German is not written. (One blog post, though, describes how one is supposed to write Swiss German.) So little is standardized that the name of the dialect can be spelled Schwyzerdütsch, Schwiizertüütsch, or Schwizertitsch (according to Wikipedia). With no prescriptive grammar, I’m free though maybe a bit aimless. I love just hearing how all the people speak differently without being told they’re doing it wrong.

How do you approach language? as a “prescriptivist” or a “descriptivist”?

Photo credit: theirhistory / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA


8 thoughts on “Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Describe, don’t prescribe

  1. Rachel

    Interestingly, most Australians that I know would say neither “I got hurt” or “I was hurt”, but rather “I hurt myself”… Which has some rather odd implications when you stop to think about it.

    With regards to “got”, I don’t mind the first one but find the second difficult to deal with – possibly because it’s not even pronounced that way where I am. We’re more likely to say something along the lines of “I’ve go’ to go to the shops” (I left that T out because we never, ever really pronounce a T or D (or an L) at the end of a syllable in my area). Leaving the “‘ve” out would sound funny, although I’ve definitely heard something along the lines of “I’ve gotta go to the shops” – usually with a voiced T (which is to say, D), which smacks of overexposure to American television!

    I hover between being a “prescriptivist” and a “descriptivist”. I like poking around in dialects and revel in dissecting the different accents around the place and will happily tell you, “I’m from South Australia! I *usedn’t* to talk like that, I never *didn’t used* to!” (there’s a happy red squiggly line under “usedn’t”). However, I’m frequently described as a grammar Nazi (which I find wrong for historical reasons).

    I suppose I think that, where one’s language has a sensible, commonly-held standard (which, naturally, changes and adapts as language does), one should hold to it, if only for ease of communication. We speak two completely different dialects of English, you and I, and yet we’re able to understand each other because we have a (mostly similar) common writing system. If we both wrote phonetically, we’ve had a hard time understanding each other. Likewise, it’s one thing to speak colloquially and dialectally with your family, but when dealing with someone from another place, it’s nice to edge closer to whatever the academic standard may be in order to aide communication. (Which is also the main reason I used so much Spanish in the US, because the Spanish-speakers simplified and standardised their speech for me, a non-native, while the English-speakers didn’t).

    Perhaps it would be better if people just accepted that American English isn’t really English anymore and called it “American”. Like I said, the written form is similar enough 99% of the time (although I got really confused in the US when I was told to find ‘bldg. 9’. “Bludge 9? What’s a bludge?”), but even then, some grammatical difference pop up if you’re reading from someone who maybe hasn’t learnt standard grammar, or if they’re writing speech. If Swedish and Norwegian are separate languages, why can’t “English” and “American” be?

    You can find on the internet sites written in Scouse, or Scots, or Yarkshire, with their own phonetic writing and grammar as they say it and unique words – you can even find a couple for Strine! – people who hold that their dialect is every bit as valid – and of course, it is. Perhaps the reason I like English’s grammatical and spelling standard so much is that it isn’t really any one dialect. The phonetics make no sense because we took the spelling from one part of England and the pronunciation from another. A lot of the “official” grammar we’re taught comes directly from French and we never actually used in the common language anyway (although the “never ending a sentence with a preposition” thing hasn’t been officially in centuries. As Winston Churchill said, “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”) The English standard isn’t how anyone talks, which puts us all on even footing when we read and write it.


  2. Yes! Please spread this idea as far and wide as possible. This isn’t an idea unique to Chomsky, by the way, but an issue that every linguist can support. I’ve written about this topic myself.

    It’s just a matter of doing good science. Science is based on evidence. In linguistics, that evidence comes from observation of native speakers. You hypothesize how language works based on these observations, then you verify your hypothesis against future observations.

    For example, if you spend some time observing English speakers, you’ll find they consistently place articles directly before noun phrases. For instance, you’ll never come across people saying “I drank coffee a” or “The where is frisbee?” The logical conclusion is that in English, articles immediately precede noun phrases. This is a no-brainer for most people

    Now take your example of split infinitives. If you were to first observe English speakers, without prejudice, you’d find that infinitives are split all over the place. Conclusion? Split infinitives are acceptable. It’s as obvious as the conclusion that articles come before nouns. The hypothesis “Split infinitives aren’t allowed i in English” is falsified a million times every day. Yet for some reason, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are still traditionalists who insist that you can’t split any infinitives. This is just insanity. Can we please have some more science in the grammar classroom?!?


  3. I’m not a linguist expert I’m only a writer but some of the best written works have broken a lot of grammar and writing rules. I recently read a critique on The Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe, a piece which broke just about every rule but by doing so he conveyed the madness and emotional turmoil the narrator was feeling.
    I would use ‘I got hurt’ sometimes in my writing. It suggests the ‘hurt’ was not an accident and was caused by someone else and it was still hurting if not physically then emotionally. ‘I was hurt’ implies it was in the past and over with. ‘I hurt myself’ suggests it was an accident and my own stupid fault. A small change in wording can convey a very different if subtle meaning to the reader/listener.


  4. Pingback: Chomsky, linguistics, and justice: Anything can translate | Loving Language

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