Arguments surrounding the prescriptive and descriptive approaches to language have been going on for as long as anyone can remember, but what should we make of this and who are these people? Well, prescriptivists are people who, according to Trask (1999, p. 73) believe that language is “a matter of what people ought to say”. In other words, it is thought that there is a set of grammatical rules that people should abide by in order to keep language from ever changing, because prescriptivists hate that. Descriptivists on the other hand are a little more laid back, and adopt a less controlling perspective on language. Descriptivists aim to observe language and figure out how it works, rather than prescribe how it should be used. Crystal states, “[a] descriptive grammar describes the form, meaning and use of grammatical units and construction in a language, without making any evaluative judgements about their standing in society” (2006, p. 231).
Prescriptivist attitudes date back to the 17th century, when Jonathon Swift proposed in 1712 that we needed to ‘fix’ language. As a way of attempting to standardise and regularise the English language, he tried to take on the French approach of having an ‘Academy’. However, this was a flop and the introduction of an English academy was quite frankly, not meant to be. Ironically, Oldmixon’s Reflections on Dr Swift’s letter to the Earl of Oxford, about the English Tongue criticised Swift’s attempt throughout, implying “Swift was no fit person to suggest standards for the language” (McIntyre, 2009, p. 158), due to his vulgar English.
Swift’s proposal for an English academy may have failed, but that did not stop other linguists from having an opinion about language. Jean Aitchison proposed in 1997 that there are three possible metaphors, or myths which encapsulate people’s anxieties about what they perceive to be language ‘decay’ and ‘erosion’, which she believes to be false. The ‘Damp Spoon Syndrome’ implies that people have become lazy with language, “precisely the kind of distaste I feel at seeing a damp spoon dipped in the sugar bowl…” (1997, p. 9-10). Aitchison criticised this point stating, “[t]he only truly lazy speech is drunken speech… and English is not getting like drunken speech” (1997, p. 10).
The ‘Crumbling Castle View’ is another of Aitchison’s metaphors, which is the tendency of people to treat language as an ornate building that once had a peak of perfection but is now falling apart. However, Aitchison disagrees with this claim based on the fact that there has never been a time when English had reached its ultimate “peak of perfection” (1997, p. 12), implying it is not possible to preserve something that is constantly changing.
Lastly comes the ‘Infectious Disease Assumption’, which is the view that people pick up language change by trying to fit in with what is new within language and society. Aitchison summarised this assumption implying it is normal behaviour, claiming “[p]eople pick up changes because they want to. They want to fit in with social groups, and they want to adapt their hairstyle, clothes, and language to those of people they admire.” (1997, p. 14).
So is having a descriptive attitude to language the way forward? Well, not necessarily. Although descriptivism seems like the more laid back and friendly view to have about language, it does not come without its faults. Crystal’s 2006 ‘potato’s as a test case’ theory regarding green-grocers’ apostrophes, indicates how meaning is still provided in words where it would not necessarily matter if they had an apostrophe or not, such as in potato’s, or tomato’s. To omit the apostrophe would not have an effect on the meaning of the word, because “[t]here is not the slightest ambiguity when we see a sign outside a shop advertising potato’s” (2006, p. 455), due to it being common knowledge that is it not possible for inanimate objects to possess things. However, that is not to say that we do not need apostrophes altogether; in fact it is very important that we do have rules such as punctuation, as to carelessly punctuate could lead to people interpreting what you’re saying in the wrong way.
So how do these ideas co-exist in our language, when they are so opposed to one another? Personally, I think that it is not possible for the English language to work without prescriptivist and descriptivist attitudes; we need a balance of both. On one hand language has to keep changing to stay current within the 21st century. However we also need punctuation and grammatical rules in order to be able to understand each other. As Mesthrie (2009, p. 19) says – a “compromise position therefore seems possible”, for language to be successful.
AMBER PICKERING, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK