I used to be a prescriptivist…

…but then I saw the light

This post is based on a NaBloPoMo prompt: What was something you once believe was true but now you know is false? How did you feel when you learned the facts?

The early years

From an early age, I learnt to read and write by typing with my tiny hands on the hard keys of a Minitel terminal. In case you don’t know, the Minitel is basically the ancestor of the Internet – and yes, I’m that old. The terminal was my first computer, even though all I could do was type and sort of draw things that I couldn’t even save, and I was sad to see it go.

As a child, I used to read a lot and even skipped the last year of kindergarten because I could read and write better than other kids my age. My parents were primary school teachers and my mother would come up with all kinds of language games. At the time, people weren’t so obsessed with teaching young children foreign languages, so French was the only one she taught me.

All this typing, reading, and playing taught me to love “good” French and made me a good writer and proofreader. I was never going to become a novelist but I had an easy time learning orthography and grammar rules. I even enjoyed dictations – except for that one time when a teacher pretended I had forgotten an accent because she didn’t want me to get an A.

The “prescriptivist” years

Over the years, as many of us do, I developed some sort of heightened sensitivity to grammar and spelling mistakes as well as dubious word choices. I just couldn’t help it: whenever I noticed something “wrong” in the way a person spoke or wrote, whether next to me or on TV, a little voice inside my head would repeat it and I would either roll my eyes or correct them – very often out loud.

Of course, I have learnt to repress this urge in order to avoid offending the wrong people or getting on my friend’s nerves, but there are always times when I forget how annoying this habit can be. My partner often pays the price for my forgetfulness – thankfully, he doesn’t seem to mind it that much, but he does hate it when I interrupt him to correct him.

So here is a definition of “prescriptivism” taken from Wikipedia:

Linguistic prescription (or prescriptivism) is the practice of elevating one variety or manner of language use over another. It may imply some forms are incorrect, improper, illogical, lack communicative effect, or are of low aesthetic value. […] these normative practices may address such linguistics aspects as spelling, grammar, semantics, pronunciation, and syntax. They may also include judgements on socially proper and politically correct language use.

That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? Well, we get called “grammar Nazis” for a reason – although I wish people would use “grammar police” or something less offensive. So prescriptivists are attached to the rules and vocabulary they consider correct, impose their “language beliefs” on others, and are pretty intolerant – but I swear this is (mostly) unintentional. Most of us are just trying to help and don’t even realise what is wrong with our behaviour.

Long live descriptivism

So for the better part of my life, I was a prescriptivist, until one day, maybe 2,5 years ago, I saw the light. I can’t remember the exact date when it happened, but I do remember the circumstances: I was in the middle of a university course on corpora linguistics as a professor explained how oral corpora could be used to study language phenomena.

She wrote a few sentences on the whiteboard and asked us whether we saw any mistakes in them; most of the students, myself included, did. However, every time one of them pointed out that something was incorrect, another student or our professor would answer that it was a regional phenomenon. In “standard French”, it was considered a mistake, but for many people, it was actually part of their normal speech and thousands or millions of people didn’t see anything wrong with it.

So I guess I once believe that there were “right” and “wrong” ways to use a language and that I knew the difference between the two, but that day I learnt that there are as many ways to write and speak as there are people, and that language can’t be reduced to theory (what we learn in school) and comes to life with practice (actual use).

That was the day I decided I wanted to become a descriptivist. Here is Wikipedia‘s definition:

In the study of language, description or descriptive linguistics is the work of objectively analyzing and describing how language is actually used (or how it was used in the past) by a group of people in a speech community. […] Descriptivism is the belief that description is more significant or important to teach, study, and practice than prescription.

In other words, being a descriptivist means considering that there is no “wrong” way to speak a language and that a language isn’t a fixed set of rules and words intended to be used in a precise way: language is ever-changing and is actually defined by the way we use it. As a result, every phenomenon (including those a prescriptivist may consider “wrong”) is worth being studied as it can bring information on its users, language evolution, and other things of interest to linguists.

Current status: still in transition

Until I wrote this post, I don’t think I had realised how much that day had changed me. Of course, I won’t pretend to be a “full-time” descriptivist because I still correct others from time to time, but I think my efforts have paid off. I can now read a text without stopping at every spelling or punctuation error, and focus on the content of someone’s speech even when the form isn’t “up to my standards”.

Because this is all they are, standards, and I shouldn’t judge other people’s writings and speeches by them. It just makes no sense. After all, I also make mistakes, especially in German, and as far as I know, no one made me the Queen of Language.

Featured image: English Dictionaries by John Keogh on Flickr, resized and cropped by me.

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One thought on “I used to be a prescriptivist…

  1. Pingback: Falling behind – Second-week NaBloPoMo roundup | Keeping Track

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