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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Prescriptive linguistics is a HARD limit*

I've mentioned prescriptive linguistics here a few times, but I don't know that I've ever defined it. Linguistic prescriptivism is the philosophy that there should be immutable rules governing the language we speak, that there is a right way and a wrong way to use language, and that failure to follow these rules is a character flaw. I think people assume that all English majors are prescriptivists, and most of us probably start out this way. But a close study of the language makes it difficult, maybe impossible, to hold on to that philosophy. 

See, without a certain amount of elasticity, language doesn't exist. Without neologisms, we'd be stuck trying to communicate in a language that never progressed past rock and fire. And in fact, elasticity is one of the defining characteristics of the English language.
You see England got conquered. A lot. And each time it was conquered, the language stretched as words from another new language got crammed in. That's one of the reasons English has so many words that mean exactly the same thing. The Germanic tribes gave us the word cow, the Norse gave us bull, the French gave us beef, and now folks learning the English language are paying the price.
And part of the reason our grammar is so complicated and confusing. For instance, the word whom. In Latin, the direct object in a sentence ended in the letter m. For whatever reason, the French followed that rule for some, but not all direct objects. In English there are only a tiny handful of words that follow that rule (whom and him are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head), and there's no reason for them to. Latin had to use a special ending to indicate a direct object because they didn't have prepositions. We've got prepositions like to and for to indicate that a given noun is the object of the verb, so the m is just there for show. Linguistic prescriptivists cleave to this totally pointless rule, but those who don't follow it are doing English a favor, really, by stripping off the dead weight. 
English never stopped evolving, and the English language is so much richer for it. So when you think about it, it's the people who change the rules who are honoring the true essence of the language.


* Oddly enough, this is a quotation from 50 Shades of Grey. In between the pyrotechnic orgasms, the lavish displays of wealth (money porn), and endless filler, Ana and Christian have running debates over vocabulary and grammar. 


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