Saturday, 19 November 2011

Rules of language vs prescriptivism

I blog this blog over at Tumblr as well, as there's a linguistic community over there and Blogger is so uselessly hopeless at having any kind of interaction between bloggers. There was an interesting post recently from Lesserjoke, which I replied to.

He was asked this question:

Question: Hey, I’m just wondering- and totally not in a sarcastic/condescending way- from a linguists perspective, if there’s no “wrong” usage of words or grammar, why have rules at all? Are there any that matter? Just wanted to get your views on it.

And this was his reply:

Answer: Linguists really do vary, and most are not as pigheadedly anti-prescriptivist as I am. =) But, from my perspective, we don’t need rules at all. English survived for quite a while before people started writing down the rules to it, and there are many societies around the world still today that don’t actively enforce linguistic rules.

There’s a huge pressure on people who directly interact to understand one another. If X and Y are going to communicate to each one’s benefit, they’re going to need to be able to successfully pass messages back and forth. And when you expand that to an entire society, the principle remains the same: the language of people who are forced to communicate naturally converges to the point of understandability, without the need for actively prescribing rules.

Due to that pressure, most variation within a language is just statistical noise: it’s interesting, it can teach us a lot about the principles of grammar, and I would even say it’s beautiful… but it’s so minor that it doesn’t get in the way of comprehension. It’s really rare for two speakers of the same language to truly not be able to understand each other.

And if that were to happen — if, without the active enforcement of grammatical rules, a formerly common language begins splitting apart… who cares? Historically, that’s happened plenty of times. The various Romance languages all descended from dialects of Latin, Old English branched away from Old Germanic, and so on and so forth. Languages split when that social pressure goes away: when one population of Old Germanic speakers no longer are interacting enough with the others to need to maintain cross-group intelligibility. It’s a perfectly natural linguistic process, and it almost doesn’t make sense to stand in its way. If we need to understand one another, we will, and if we don’t, what’s the point of making sure we can?

So that’s my answer! The explicit enforcement of grammatical rules is unnecessary and only serves to unfairly shame speakers of nonstandard variants. If we just let the invisible hand take care of it (the way many societies have done and continue to do today), an equilibrium of necessary intelligibility in language would soon be achieved.

I thought that was broadly right but overlooked a fundamental aspect of language, which is that it is strictly rule-governed. I agree that we don't need to explicitly enforce the rules, but speakers of language enforce them themselves without outside interference. I replied stating as much, as follows:

A crucial point is the difference between prescriptive rules and the principles of grammar that underlie language. I agree with the above regarding the explicit enforcement of ‘rules’ - but these are the little things, the things that vary in non-standard usage and so on. 
The fact there are asymmetries that hold across every language tells me that there are underlying principles (rules) that form the structure of language. Variation is on top of that and provides the difference languages that we see. For example, there is no language, not a single one, which has the opposite of V2 (i.e. that places the verb in the penultimate position). There are loads of these facts and they tell us that there must be some kind of rules. 
And furthermore, although speakers can communicate even when there’s a lot of variation, there are limits to what speakers will produce and judge grammatical. It’s basically the difference between saying that you can’t say ‘I done it already’ and saying that you can’t say ‘already it I’ - a speaker may well say the first and a prescriptivist would rule it ‘wrong’, but no speaker of English would produce the second. 
These are examples from syntax, but we can look at phonology too. We can say that it’s fine to pronounce the vowel in ‘grass’ (there’s a massive difference between the north and south of England on this one) in two wildly different ways, and both are fine and understandable. One might be judged wrong by certain people, but as long as both say ‘grass’, it’s not wrong from a linguistic point of view. But it’s simply not possible for an English speaker to pronounce a word [rgas]. It’s against the rules of the language - not the ones someone made up, but the real, natural rules that underpin the structure of the language. 
So I would say we DO need rules; we don’t need prescriptivists because speakers enforce the real rules themselves naturally. This doesn’t preclude language change, because the rules can change, but at any one time, the language is stable enough for us to communicate. 


  1. Very true! I guess I'm just defining "rules" differently than you are. As you suggest, language follows rules on its own, and all languages are rule-based. I was defining "rules" more specifically as those external ones people refer to in an attempt to enforce a standard.

    To offer an analogy: there are some principles that must be adhered to when you drive a car, simply because that's how driving a car works: you turn the steering wheel and the car turns that way, you hit the gas pedal and the car speeds up, and so on. These constraints provide a structure to the car-drive experience, and it would be silly to suggest that a truly formless drive could take place with no general patterns behind it. The rules I object to are more akin to traffic laws, that attempt to tell someone what to do and what not to do the road. In my opinion, language doesn't need traffic cops!

  2. To sum up: linguistics is a science, and people who discuss language should be scientific about it. It's perfectly fine to say, "One cannot say X in this language / any language" (so long as you are always prepared to revise that statement in light of further data). But saying, "One should not say X in this language" is simply an unscientific opinion.

  3. Yeah - that's exactly what I was trying to say, in a long-winded way! Your car/traffic cop analogy is a really good one, and just right. I might steal that for use in teaching in the future!

  4. Thanks, and you're welcome to! I can't take full credit for it, though. I first got the "people who study language don't want to be traffic cops" metaphor from Erin McKean's TED Talk on lexicography: