English Language

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in English Language

November 9, 2020

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[Modified Video Transcription]

Prescriptivism Versus Descriptivism - GIF or JIF?

Ever since the inception of the format, we have been arguing with each other over whether we should say 'gif' or 'jif'. This debate has raged both online and offline, but does it really matter? On one side, supporters of 'gif' claim that because the acronym stands for Graphics Interchange Format, the G sound in 'graphics' should be maintained. Whereas the 'jif' camp argues that because the inventor of the format, Steve Wilhite, says 'jif', so should we all. However, a far more sane argument is that as long as what someone says (whether it be 'gif' or 'jif') is understood, it shouldn't matter how they say it. 

As students of English language, we should aim to primarily take this descriptive approach to studying language. We identify and describe what people are saying or writing, and the effects this has, but we don't then ascribe our own judgement. Language exists to be a vessel for our communication, and so, as long as it is transferring meaning between its users, it's serving its purpose. There is no correct way of speaking or writing because there isn't really a good way of determining what this correct way is. 

What Are Prescriptivism and Descriptivism? 

Simply put, prescriptivism is an attitude that prescribes how language should be and how you, as its speaker, must use it. A prescriptivist most often promotes Standard English or a similar variety. This is the variety of English you will find in most textbooks, government letters and notices and in your English classroom. 

Descriptivism on the other hand, is a non-judgemental approach to looking at language. As descriptivists, we place more importance on how English is actually being written and spoken rather than trying to identify a correct way. The vast majority of linguists, dictionaries and other English language authorities consider themselves to be descriptive and not prescriptive, and this is a really important distinction. 

If the way that we as English speakers use or spell a word changes, the dictionary will change too, in order to reflect this. The Macquarie Dictionary made one such change in 2012, which entered the public spotlight. The word 'misogyny' has been used for many years to mean 'an entrenched prejudice against women' and not necessarily 'a hatred of women', as it says in the dictionary. So, when Julia Gillard used the word in her speech on the topic, it seemed to conflict with what it said in the dictionary. Yet, we all knew what she meant. And so, The Macquarie Dictionary updated its entry for the word to better reflect how we actually are using it. That's all well and good in the academic world, but why is this distinction important outside of a video about language? 

Language Prejudice

Throughout history, and still to this day, prejudice exists against people who speak differently.

For example, for much of the 20th century, and to some extent still to this day, Aboriginal Englishes have been deemed substandard and inferior to varieties used by people with European heritage. This has led to demonstrable discrimination in places like courts and hospitals, but often the time and care is not taken to actually interpret what Aboriginal people mean when they speak. By seeing that prescribing how a language ‘should’ be doesn't actually do anything to improve its effect or usefulness, we can be far more accepting of the fact that language varies depending on who is speaking and that it changes with time. 

We have the option of either allowing the people to define how a language is used or allowing a linguistic academy like the Council for German Orthography in Germany, or the French Academy in France, to prescribe how we should speak.

Language Shift

So, where can we find relevant examples in today's society? We're seeing a shift to prescriptive attitudes in the realm of teen-speak and text-speak, with people like David Crystal saying that creating new words and new ways of speaking is a rite of passage for young people. In the rapidly evolving fields of technology, social media or even politics these days, we are seeing new words and phrases and even entire new ways of constructing sentences being coined every day. But, not everyone is accepting of this and plenty of people still cringe when they hear a hashtag used in regular speech. We're also experiencing a shift to the normalization of informal language, Australian slang and hypocorisms, even in social and situational contexts where traditionally we would use a more formal register. Just how many times have we heard the likes of Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull used the phrase ‘fair dinkum’?

But when does this matter in English language? We should be careful not to say that certain ways of speaking or certain varieties of language are inherently wrong and instead, describe what makes them 'non-standard uses' of language. This description is far more interesting than a subjective judgment of a particular way of using English. 

Descriptivism and Prescriptivism as Metalinguistic Tools

The terms descriptivism and prescriptivism can also be good metalinguistic tools when we are analysing opinions about language. Look out for segments on the radio, television or even the opinion columns of newspapers for discussions about varieties of English. People can identify very strongly with certain varieties of language, so a prescriptive attitude can often also indicate other beliefs. This can be important when identifying the social and cultural context of a text. We can also employ this knowledge in our own writing and speaking. Instead of trying to use correct language, we can instead focus on using appropriate language. This doesn't mean that you can start spelling words however you want, and giving your essays a generous sprinkling of commas and apostrophes where they don't belong (because these will often get in the way of you being easily and clearly understood), but the next time you're writing and you see a red line under that word that you're a hundred percent sure is correct, you can be safe in knowing that it's probably the dictionary, and not you, that needs an update.

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