Ends of Language

The other day I read a good post at James Chastek’s blog about linguistics and grammar, which focused on the “prescriptive versus descriptive” debate among linguists (in my experience, the linguists I’ve seen online seem to strongly oppose prescription).

Descriptivists quite often attack those who complain about so-called improper spelling or grammar by saying “languages change, get over it.” There are a lot of issues in this debate. It’s not hard to see that a big thing motivating the anti-prescriptivists is an emotional reaction against the perceived smug attitude of purists.

While I agree that sometimes prescription is done simply out of arrogance, prescriptivists are not always wrong. It is true that there are ends to the use of language and not all uses fulfill those ends well. The most obvious use of language is to make assertions, which obviously requires communicating clearly to others. However, sometimes language is used for its own sake instead of for assertions, e.g., in clever wordplay. Further, sometimes clarity is actually avoided, e.g., when Christ says parables to have his listeners exercise their minds (St. Augustine, Sermons on the New Testament, 21.10), or to demonstrate his opponents’ hardness of heart (Matt 13:13-15). Also, sometimes poets deliberately include ambiguous lines in their poems to create a certain effect on the reader.

Not all the ends are equal. Deliberate ambiguity is rare, and most arguments about prescription revolve around cases where clarity is desired. Furthermore, it is important to note that some things which are usually means can be ends in themselves, but are usually more highly regarded when used as means. For example, while journeying is an end in itself, most people tend to see more value in journeying that has a planned destination than in wandering aimlessly. Similarly, I’ve seen some hip-hop fans complain that certain rappers are only good at wordplay and cannot use wordplay to express a message.

Deciding on whether to prohibit certain uses of language is tricky, because it requires taking into account all the ends of languages, ranking them, and trying to determine the pros and cons. One thing that is certain, though, is that it is wrong to prescribe certain rules out of self-love, whether it be “this is how I’ve always used it, so must it be forever,” or out of a dislike of difference, or elitism (often linked to racism). Amusingly, according to Peter Brown, someone once tried to “prove his superiority to Augustine by taking him to task for writing ‘Donatist’ when the educated man said ‘Donatian'”. On the other hand, certain things that prescriptivists tend to support (and which their opponents tend to attack them for) actually do have some positive effects on clarity. For example, preventing people from ending a sentence with a preposition would make the language a bit easier to understand for English learners, since, according to Wikipedia, dangling prepositions are pretty rare outside of English. Also, another thing prescriptivists are sometimes known to criticize, using ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb, can in fact occasionally cause ambiguity (although it’s pretty rare).

In his blog post, James brings up the debate as involving the is-ought distinction, with the implication that prescriptivists try to reason from is to ought whereas descriptivists try to avoid it. However, this can easily be flipped. After all, it is the descriptivists who generally argue “languages change, and this is what the word has come to mean.” If that is the case, why prevent prescriptivists from trying to change language the way they want, unless the descriptivist is arguing that we ought to not temper with language as it is now? After all, sometimes language changes occur by the actions of purists, e.g., Middle French speakers who changed ‘savoir’ into ‘sçavoir’ out of a desire to reform the word to more closely match the Latin ‘scire.’

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