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.