What Descriptivism Is and Isn’t

A few weeks ago, the New Yorker published what is nominally a review of Henry Hitchings’ book The Language Wars (which I still have not read but have been meaning to) but which was really more of a thinly veiled attack on what its author, Joan Acocella, sees as the moral and intellectual failings of linguistic descriptivism. In what John McIntyre called “a bad week for Joan Acocella”, the whole mess was addressed multiple times by various bloggers and other writers.* I wanted to write about it at the time but was too busy, but then the New Yorker did me a favor by publishing a follow-up, “Inescapably, You’re Judged by Your Language”, which was equally off-base, so I figured that the door was still open.

I suspected from the first paragraph that Acocella’s article was headed for trouble, and the second paragraph quickly confirmed it. For starters, her brief description of the history and nature of English sounds like it’s based more on folklore than fact. A lot of people lived in Great Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, and their linguistic contributions were effectively nil. But that’s relatively small stuff. The real problem is that she doesn’t really understand what descriptivism is, and she doesn’t understand that she doesn’t understand, so she spends the next five pages tilting at windmills.

Acocella says that descriptivists “felt that all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was.” This statement is far too narrow, and not only because it completely leaves out historical linguistics. As a linguist, I think it’s odd to describe linguistics as merely saying what the current practice is, since it makes it sound as though all linguists study is usage. Do psycholinguists say what the current practice is when they do eye-tracking studies or other psychological experiments? Do phonologists or syntacticians say what the current practice is when they devise abstract systems of ordered rules to describe the phonological or syntactic system of a language? What about experts in translation or first-language acquisition or computational linguistics? Obviously there’s far more to linguistics than simply saying what the current practice is.

But when it does come to describing usage, we linguists love facts and complexity. We’re less interested in declaring what’s correct or incorrect than we are in uncovering all the nitty-gritty details. It is true, though, that many linguists are at least a little antipathetic to prescriptivism, but not without justification. Because we linguists tend to deal in facts, we take a rather dim view of claims about language that don’t appear to be based in fact, and, by extension, of the people who make those claims. And because many prescriptions make assertions that are based in faulty assumptions or spurious facts, some linguists become skeptical or even hostile to the whole enterprise.

But it’s important to note that this hostility is not actually descriptivism. It’s also, in my experience, not nearly as common as a lot of prescriptivists seem to assume. I think most linguists don’t really care about prescriptivism unless they’re dealing with an officious copyeditor on a manuscript. It’s true that some linguists do spend a fair amount of effort attacking prescriptivism in general, but again, this is not actually descriptivism; it’s simply anti-prescriptivism.

Some other linguists (and some prescriptivists) argue for a more empirical basis for prescriptions, but this isn’t actually descriptivism either. As Language Log’s Mark Liberman argued here, it’s just prescribing on the basis of evidence rather than person taste, intuition, tradition, or peevery.

Of course, all of this is not to say that descriptivists don’t believe in rules, despite what the New Yorker writers think. Even the most anti-prescriptivist linguist still believes in rules, but not necessarily the kind that most people think of. Many of the rules that linguists talk about are rather abstract schematics that bear no resemblance to the rules that prescriptivists talk about. For example, here’s a rather simple one, the rule describing intervocalic alveolar flapping (in a nutshell, the process by which a word like latter comes to sound like ladder) in some dialects of English:

intervocalic alveolar flapping

Rules like these constitute the vast bulk of the language, though they’re largely subconscious and unseen, like a sort of linguistic dark matter. The entire canon of prescriptions (my advisor has identified at least 10,000 distinct prescriptive rules in various handbooks, though only a fraction of these are repeated) seems rather peripheral and inconsequential to most linguists, which is another reason why we get annoyed when prescriptivists insist on their importance or identify standard English with them. Despite what most people think, standard English is not really defined by prescriptive rules, which makes it somewhat disingenuous and ironic for prescriptivists to call us hypocrites for writing in standard English.

If there’s anything disingenuous about linguists’ belief in rules, it’s that we’re not always clear about what kinds of rules we’re talking about. It’s easy to say that we believe in the rules of standard English and good communication and whatnot, but we’re often pretty vague about just what exactly those rules are. But that’s probably a topic for another day.

*A roundup of some of the posts on the recent brouhaha:

Cheap Shot”, “A Bad Week for Joan Acocella”, “Daddy, Are Prescriptivists Real?”, and “Unmourned: The Queen’s English Society” by John McIntyre

Rules and Rules” and “A Half Century of Usage Denialism” by Mark Liberman

Descriptivists as Hypocrites (Again)” by Jan Freeman

Ignorant Blathering at The New Yorker”, by Stephen Dodson, aka Languagehat

Re: The Language Wars” and “False Fronts in the Language Wars” by Steven Pinker

The New Yorker versus the Descriptivist Specter” by Ben Zimmer

Speaking Truth about Power” by Nancy Friedman

Sator Resartus” by Ben Yagoda

I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed. If you know of any more, feel free to make note of them in the comments.