I feel like this past month more and more people have mentioned to me their belief that languages either do or should strive to be logical. On the one hand, this is an obvious point. A more logical language is a more learnable language, and since language is passed down from generation to generation, we expect that exceedingly difficult-to-acquire portions of a language will be eventually lost by this process. That’s fairly uncontroversial and is known as “regularization” in linguistics. But the problem is that the logic of language is generally opaque. It’s not the same as the logic of mathematics or the logic of argumentation, so it’s hardly obvious what it means for a language to be logical. I’d wanted to make a post about this, but I was having trouble saying what I meant to say. Thankfully, my labmate, Emily Morgan, ended up saying some great stuff about it in a comment elsewhere. She’s been kind enough to elaborate on those thoughts here. Without further babbling from me, here’s a guest post from her.
When linguists speak out against prescriptivism, one question we get asked is why we care so much about it. This post is an attempt to answer that question.
To begin with, it’s important to point out that linguists generally aren’t blanketly opposed to prescriptivism; rather, we’re opposed to uninformed or misinformed prescriptivism. So for example, I’m very much in favor of standard spelling and punctuation use, but with the understanding that these are more or less arbitrary conventions–not because I believe that these particular conventions are better than any others. Prescriptivist rules often come with supposed justifications, but under further scrutiny those justifications frequently don’t hold water. In particular, many rules are justified on the basis of some “logical” argument. The problem with that is that it’s easy to construct arguments that sound logical for certain cases, but don’t follow the bigger-picture logic of how language works. To give an analogy from mathematics, I could make a pseudo-logical argument that because we count …8, 9, 10… then the next number after 18, 19 should be 110. Of course, given an understanding of how the decimal system works, that’s nonsense. But without that broader understanding, it would sound logical. So bringing this back to language, if someone tries to argue, for example, that You drive too slow is incorrect because slow is an adjective not an adverb, that sounds logical under the simplified view that slow is an adjective while slowly is an adverb. But in the bigger picture, we find that slow can be used either as an adjective or an adverb–and has had both uses for hundreds of years.
That bigger-picture argument puts a lot of weight on descriptive generalizations about how native speakers use their language. I think it’s important to understand why linguists so often use arguments like these, which are based on descriptions of what native speakers do. The underlying reason is that language is a natural phenomenon, and our goal as linguists is to understand how it works. And to do so, we call upon all the empirical tools of science, and our primary source of data is the way that people actually do use language. Now, I recognize that how people do use language and how people should use language are not inherently the same thing. But I think that any claims about how people should use language need to be grounded in a solid understanding of what language is. And I think that many prescriptivists fundamentally misunderstand this. Language is not an ideal system that we as individual speakers are trying to draw upon or conform to. Language is something that we as a community of speakers collectively create and reinvent each time we speak. So any statement that we make about language is inextricably rooted in a descriptive generalization about what that community does. Even the most fundamental notions of grammar—things like the division of utterances into words, or the grouping of words into parts of speech—are not a priori assumptions about how communication should work: rather, they’re based on our empirical understanding of how speakers treat language.
So in the bigger picture, why do we linguists care about all of this? There’s a lot of reasons, but I think the most fundamental is that there’s hugely widespread misunderstanding of a topic that we care a lot about, and we feel a professional obligation to set the record straight. In the worst case, baseless prescriptions like “don’t split infinitives” or “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” actually lead to worse writing, as people learn to go through contortions to avoid what are actually perfectly standard grammatical constructions. In milder cases, people just waste their time trying to remember rules like the supposed distinctions between that/which and less/fewer, which are mostly harmless when followed, but equally harmless when violated. Additionally, as Gabe discussed recently, these shibboleths distract from the true pleasure of studying language, which is an amazingly rich and fascinatingly complicated system—but instead of being exposed to the excitement of unsolved questions in linguistics, people are instead being drilled on arbitrary and unnecessary rules. To draw another analogy to math, it’s the same sort of regret I feel for people who had poor math instruction early in school, and end up hating all things number-related, without ever seeing the beauty of abstraction that comes out in higher-level math. (If you are one of those number-haters, feel free to substitute your own favorite discipline or activity, and consider that sense of “But you don’t understand!” that you feel when someone misunderstands it or dislikes it for no good reason.)
Finally, I want to clarify that in arguing for more permissive, less prescriptive attitudes towards grammar, we are not trying to convince people to use language in ways that sound unnatural to them. As native speakers, we all have intuitions about what sounds right and what sounds wrong. Gabe can say “needs done”, but to me that sounds unnatural, and so I never use it myself. One underlying assumption to the linguist’s descriptive approach to language, which we probably don’t stress enough, is that there can be more than one right way to say something, and the fact that we are describing variation between speakers does not mean that we expect to find the same variation within all individual speakers. So no one is trying to convince you to say “needs done” if it sounds wrong to your ear—we’re only trying to convince you not to be upset if someone else does use it. As a caveat, I recognize that this position gets more complicated when thinking about English as a Second Language instruction, or when teaching people who have grown up speaking a dialect that deviates in major ways from Standard English, in which cases it’s obviously valuable to discuss what standards exist and what cultural implications they bear. But even in these cases, the fundamental ideas remain unchanged: we should acknowledge variation as natural, and any usage advice needs to be based on factually grounded descriptions of that variation.