This lesson highlights the essential fact that linguists explain the grammatical system of a language on the basis of what people in fact state, not what they should say. To a linguist, grammar includes those building and constructions judged appropriate by a native speaker’s intuitions. This is what it indicates to state that linguistics is detailed and not authoritative. Linguistics is descriptive, not authoritative.
Lots of people associate understanding a language with speaking and composing it according to the grammatical guidelines developed for that language in grammar books and dictionaries.
The research study of linguistic skills does not consist of the study of authoritative standards that declare that a person sentence instead of another is correct. Instead, linguists have an interest in what speakers of a language in fact state and what they accept as possible in the language, despite whether the construction matches the grammar rules presumed by the grammar “authorities.” This technique to grammar is descriptive instead of authoritative.
Descriptive grammar is what speakers state, and when, why and how they say it (and not whether they need to or shouldn’t say it.) Linguists concern themselves with discovering what speakers learn about a language and describing that knowledge objectively. They devise guidelines of descriptive grammar. For example, a linguist describing English might create rules such as these: 1. Some English speakers end a sentence with a preposition (Who do you wish to speak to?).
2. Some English speakers use double negatives for negation (I do not have absolutely nothing.
) 3. Adjectives precede the nouns they customize (red book, great man) 4. To form the plural of a noun, add -s (1 space, 2 spaces; 1 book, 2 books) 5. The vowel sound in the word fit is produced with rounded lips. Linguists do not make judgment calls as to whether the speakers must or shouldn’t speak a certain way. Detailed grammar, then, is created by linguists as a model of speakers’ linguistic skills. Prescriptive grammar is what speakers must or shouldn’t say. When a lot of people think of “grammatical guidelines,” they believe of what linguists call guidelines of authoritative grammar. Authoritative guidelines inform you how to speak or write, according to somebody’s concept of what is “excellent” or “bad..” Of course, there is nothing inherently good or bad about any use of language; prescriptive rules serve only to mold your spoken and written language to some norm. Here are a few examples of prescriptive rules; you can probably think of others.
1.The subject of a sentence must agree with the verb (The instructions are clear NOT The instructions is clear.) 2.Use much for count nouns. Use many for non-count nouns (We don’t have much coffee AND We don’t have many cups of coffee.) 3.Capitalize the first letter of a sentence (The television is broken. It needs to be fixed.) 4.Use subject pronouns after the verb be (It was I who called you NOT It was me who called you.) 5.Use the definite article the before names of rivers and geographical areas but not before the names of lakes or continents (the Nile, the Middle East AND Lake Tahoe, Asia) Notice that the prescriptive rules make a value judgment about the correctness of an utterance. Descriptive rules, on the other hand, accept the patterns a speaker actually uses and try to account for them.
Descriptive rules allow for different varieties of a language; they don’t ignore a construction simply because some prescriptive grammarian doesn’t like it. If linguistics is descriptive and not prescriptive, then why do we have prescriptive rules anyway? So, if prescriptive rules are not based on actual use, how did they arise? Many of these rules were actually invented by someone. During the 17th and 18th centuries, scholars became preoccupied with the art, ideas, and language of ancient Greece and Rome. The classical period was regarded as a golden age and Latin as the perfect language. The notion that Latin was somehow better or purer than contemporary languages was strengthened by the fact that Latin was by then strictly a written language and had long ceased to undergo the changes natural to spoken language.
For many writers of the 17th and 18th centuries, the rules of Latin became, whenever remotely feasible, the rules of English. It is somewhat surprising that rules that do not reflect actual language use should survive. There are several reasons, however, for the continued existence of prescriptive rules. 1.Rules provide a standard form of a language that is accepted by most speakers of that language. Adherence to prescriptive rules allows a speaker to be understood by the greatest possible number of individuals. This is especially important for a language such as German, which has dialects so different from one another that their speakers cannot always understand each other. 2.A set of standard rules is necessary for students learning English (or any other language) as a second language. Imagine the chaos if there were no guidelines for learning English (or Spanish, or Japanese, or Arabic, etc.) Thus, rules serve a very useful purpose for language teachers and learners as well.
3.Most importantly, there are social reasons for prescriptive rules. Nonstandard dialects are still frowned upon by many groups and can inhibit one’s progress in society. The existence of prescriptive rules allows a speaker of a nonstandard dialect to learn the rules of the standard dialect and employ them in appropriate social circumstances. Therefore, prescriptive rules are used as an aid in social mobility. This does not mean, however, that these judgments about dialects are linguistically valid. The idea that one dialect of a language is intrinsically better than another is simply false. From a strictly linguistic point of view all dialects are equally good and equally valid. To look down on nonstandard dialects is to exercise a form of social and linguistic prejudice. We’ll learn more about language and identity in our next module.
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the term dates from 1706 and is defined as “a person who adheres strictly and often excessively to a tradition”, especially “one preoccupied with the purity of a language and its protection from the use of foreign or altered forms.” A purist is one who desires that an item remain true to its essence and free from adulterating or diluting influences.