Ahh, to be a linguistic descriptivist, to frolic through the flowery meadows of untamed language, gazing in awe at the marvels of ‘LOL’, ‘innit’ and ‘bromance’, not giving a second thought as to whether such words are the product of laziness or mal-education. ‘It’s all beautiful man!’ Sadly enough though, while many people would love to maintain this idealised approach to language in their everyday realities, it is simply an impossible task.
Why? Well, to be a descriptivist is to open heartedly embrace language change, irrespective of how it may occur. As Trask puts it: ‘we try to describe the facts of linguistic behaviour exactly as we find them, and we refrain from making value judgements about the speech of native speakers’ (2007: 69).
The opposite side of the coin however is prescriptivism, an approach that centres itself around the opinions and values of its followers. As opposed to descriptivism’s observational standpoint, prescriptivists feel that language change should be engaged with and questioned, with new utterances only being granted access into the wider vocabulary upon meeting specific conditions laid out to ensure the prevention of language degradation. This view is described by Crystal as being ‘…essentially a manual that focuses on constructions where usage is divided, and lays down rules governing the socially correct use of language,’ (2006: 231). The latter approach does tend to appear the most extreme, helped in no small part by the innumerable anxious, ‘man on the street’ types who spare no time in mounting their soapboxes and ranting off into the sunset about how society is imploding, after they received a spelling error in a letter from the council or see the word ‘LOL’ used on Countdown. However, while the latter can indeed be thought of as less scientific and certainly biased in its approach to language change, it is still impossible, no matter how tempting the bright lights of linguistic liberality, to solely embody a descriptivist standpoint and cast off the proverbial shackles.
This does not mean however, that one can abide by the regimented practices of a prescriptivist exclusively either. It is only human to want to stand behind anything that embodies the way we think and feel, or at least the way we would like to appear to think and feel, so the taking of such strictly opposed sides is hardly surprising. However, when trying to truly assess which side of the fence you will fall linguistically – descriptivist or prescriptivist – the only answer should be to employ both. Language has changed for as long as we’ve been around to hear it and it isn’t stopping any time soon. Human nature is progression, and as we change and develop so too must our language, if for no other reason than to denote the changes and developments achieved. But for any utterance, old or new to be applied in description of the world around us, we have no choice but to apply it in conjunction with the rules and structures that have been established as the norm in our society at that time. Not doing so would render the language unintelligible as there would be no reference point indicating what would be right or wrong.
Therefore, the only approach that is truly accurate is a combination of both prescriptivism and descriptivism, as one cannot attempt to describe language without the other. That however, is only my opinion and I openly encourage anyone to find out where they stand for themselves, as I’ve only scratched the surface here, and in the case of this debate, it’s a big itch.
OLIVER NORMAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK