Prescriptive vs Descriptive Views Towards Language

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Language prescription is when a group enforces ‘laws’ or ‘rules’ about how language should be used. In contrast, those who take a descriptivist view towards language believe that all human languages, including dialect variations, are highly organized and structured systems.

For example, you’ve probably heard people say things such as, “Don’t use double negatives,” however, from a descriptivist point of view, many of the world’s languages use double negatives regularly and don’t have any negative associations with such constructions. Here are some examples:

Turkish:

Hiçbir şeyim yok

‘I do not have anything’

(literal meaning: ‘I do not have nothing’)

Serbian:

Nisam tamo nikad išla

‘I have never been there.’

( literal meaning: ‘Never I did not go there’)

and also this one:

Niko nikada nigde ništa nije uradio

‘Nobody has ever done anything, anywhere.’

(literal meaning:  ‘Nobody never did not do nothing nowhere’)

Welsh:

Dydy hi ddim yma

‘She is not here.’

(literal meaning:  ‘Not-is she not here’)

Also, did you know that, historically, English also commonly used the double negatives without being frowned upon?

From Middle English:

I ne saugh nawiht,

literal meaning:  ‘I did not see nothing)

You can find more examples here!

The following cartoon illustrates the double negative misconception, as well as the stereotypical view of English majors as prescriptivists:

Other examples of prescriptivism concern the use of contractions:

With prescriptivism, contractions are discouraged from being used in formal or academic writing or discourse (e.g. a speech). This also certainly includes other rules that censure initialisms found in texting or instant messaging (e.g., lol, omg, etc.). These rules are created in an institutional environment. For instance, the Real Academia Española (RAE) implements various grammatical rules and other language planning standards in Spain and throughout Latin America. Generally, these rules about language are prescribed for institutions: governments and schools. There is nothing inherently wrong with these types of rules since they are employed for practical reasons. With RAE, rules are utilized for unification between territories, clarity in official documents, and other formal applications.

Contrastively, in everyday conversational language, contractions are used very frequently. Linguists even have various terms for such phenomena. For example, the collapsing of syllables or the deletion of individual sounds (e.g. “would not” becomes “wouldn’t”) are due to ‘ease of articulation’, i.e. in casual conversation speakers tend to minimize effort in pronouncing every sound. From a descriptive perspective, this is not particularly the result of laziness or sloppiness, but rather productivity, efficiency in articulation, and conservation of energy.  Contractions are not randomly used. Instead, they will usually occur between frequently co-occurring words or phrases such as ‘can not’ ‘did not’ or ‘I am’. Therefore, in these instances, we are dealing with a combination of ease of articulation and communicative fluidity.

These are just a few examples to highlight some of the differences between descriptive versus prescriptive approaches to talking about language use. Linguists argue that the ‘descriptive’ view towards languages allows us to discuss how languages are actually spoken (or written) without judgments about ‘correctness’, judgments which really have less to do with any scientific examination of language and more to do with social values or language aesthetics of the time.


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