Does Prescriptivism Have Moral Worth?
I probably shouldn’t be getting into this again, but I think David Bentley Hart’s latest post on language (a follow-up to the one I last wrote about) deserves a response. You see, even though he’s no longer cloaking his peeving with the it’s-just-a-joke-but-no-seriously defense, I think he’s still cloaking his arguments in something else: spurious claims about the nature of descriptivism and the rational and moral superiority of prescriptivism. John McIntyre has already taken a crack at these claims, and I think he’s right on: Hart’s description of descriptivists doesn’t match any descriptivists I know, and his claims about prescriptivism’s rational and moral worth are highly suspect.
Hart gets off to bad start when he says that “most of [his convictions] require no defense” and then says that “if you can find a dictionary that, say, allows ‘reluctant’ as a definition of ‘reticent,’ you will also find it was printed in Singapore under the auspices of ‘The Happy Luck Goodly Englishing Council.'” Even when he provides a defense, he’s wrong: the Oxford English Dictionary contains precisely that definition, sense 2: “Reluctant to perform a particular action; hesitant, disinclined. Chiefly with about, or to do something.” The first illustrative quotation is from 1875, only 50 years after the first quote for the traditionally correct definition: “The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.” So much for the Happy Luck Goodly Englishing Council. (Oh, wait, let me guess—this is just another self-undermining flippancy.)
I’m glad that Hart avoids artificial rules such as the proscription against restrictive which and recognizes that “everyone who cares about such matters engages in both prescription and description, often confusing the two”—a point which many on both sides fail to grasp. But I’m disappointed when he says, “The real question, at the end of the day, is whether any distinction can be recognized, or should be maintained, between creative and destructive mutations,” and then utterly fails to address the question. Instead he merely defends his peeves and denigrates those who argue against his peeves without embracing the disputed senses themselves as hypocrites. But I don’t want to get embroiled in discussions about whether reticent to mean “reluctant” is right or wrong or has a long, noble heritage or is an ignorant vulgarism—that’s all beside the point and doesn’t get to the claims Hart employs to justify his peeves.
But near the end, he does say that his “aesthetic prejudice” is also a “coherent principle” because “persons can mean only what they have the words to say, and so the finer our distinctions and more precise our definitions, the more we are able to mean.” On the surface this may seem like a nice sentiment, but I don’t think it’s nearly as coherent as Hart would like to think. First of all, it smacks of the Whorfian hypothesis, the idea that words give you the power to mean things that you couldn’t otherwise mean. I’m fairly confident I could mean “disinclined to speak” even if the word reticent were nonexistent. (Note that even if the “relucant” meaning completely overtakes the traditional one, we’ll still have words like reserved and taciturn.) Furthermore, it’s possible that certain words lose their original meanings because they weren’t very useful meanings to begin with. Talking about the word decimate, for example, Jan Freeman says, “We don’t especially need a term that means ‘kill one in 10.’” So even if we accept the idea that preserving distinctions is a good thing, we need to ask whether this distinction is a boon to the language and its speakers.
And if defending fine distinctions and precise definitions is such a noble cause, why don’t prescriptivists scour the lexicon for distinctions that can be made finer and definitions that can be made more precise? Why don’t we busy ourselves with coining new words to convey new meanings that would be useful to English speakers? Hart asks whether there can be creative mutations, but he never gives an example of one or even speculates on what one might look like. Perhaps to him all mutations are destructive. Or perhaps there’s some unexplained reason why defending existing meanings is noble but creating new ones is not. Hart never says.
At the end of the day, my question is whether there really is any worth to prescriptivism. Have the activities of prescriptivists actually improved our language—or at least kept it from degenerating—or is it just an excuse to rail against people for their lexical ignorance? Sometimes, when I read articles like Hart’s, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I don’t see how his litany of peeves contributes much to the “clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness” of language, and I think his warning against the “leveling drabness of mass culture” reveals his true intent—he wants to maintain an aristocratic language for himself and other like-minded individuals.
But I don’t think this is what prescriptivism really is, or at least not what it should be. So does prescriptivism have value? I think so, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. To be honest, I’m still sorting out my feelings about prescriptivism. I know I frequently rail against bad prescriptivism, but I certainly don’t think all prescriptivism is bad. I get paid to be a prescriber at work, where it’s my job to clean up others’ prose, but I try not to let my own pet peeves determine my approach to language. I know this looks like I’m doing exactly what I criticized Hart for doing—raising a question and then dodging it—but I’m still trying to find the answer myself. Perhaps I’ll get some good, thoughtful comments on the issue. Perhaps I just need more time to mull it over and sort out my feelings. At any rate, this post is already too long, so I’ll have to leave it for another time.