[ExI] Linguistic shifts

Jebadiah Moore jebdm at jebdm.net
Mon Dec 20 03:24:14 UTC 2010

2010/12/19 Darren Greer <darren.greer3 at gmail.com>

> I dated a linguist once. His big claim-to-fame was speaking and writing
> Tolkien's elvish. He introduced me to the concept of post-scriptivisim vs.
> descriptivism. Those who would have new words officially monitored and
> approved for usage by academics, and those who would have a more organic
> growth based on popular usage alone. I've been a descriptivist ever since.
>  I can't imagine a transhumanist who wasn't.

I think the term you want is "prescriptivism", as in "prescribed".  It's not
necessarily about words being officially monitored (as is the case in
several European countries--though sometimes this is done by bureaucrats
rather than academics) as much as it is about the idea that there is some
sort of right and wrong in language use.  Anytime somebody says "that's not
good English" or "never end a sentence with a preposition" or "ain't ain't a
word" or even "learn to spell", they are demonstrating linguistic

It's not quite as clear-cut a thing as you make it out to be, though, and
most linguists wouldn't say that they were prescriptivists or
descriptivists--it's not a political affiliation.  Linguistics, as a
(social) science, is descriptive in nature; in this sense, most linguists
are opposed to prescription because it introduces bias.  On the other hand,
just as physicists aren't anti-engineering and political scientists aren't
anti-government (at least all the time ;)), linguists are not all
anti-prescription in general.

The problem is that without prescription, languages diverge faster.  Of
course, people will tend to modify their language minimally, since it
decreases their intelligibility to others, but without some oversight (at
least from parents and teachers) it still can happen more rapidly than is
ideal.  This can be especially problematic in specialized fields, and in
language modalities which are less commonly used.  In specialized fields,
the lack of standard definitions for words, leading to decreased
intelligibility across time and between groups, can greatly inhibit
progress; just look at philosophy!  I kid, but it is clear that this has
been a motivation at least within bureaucracies and other systems which use
old texts in a modern context.  In these cases, while you don't usually get
the specialized part of the language standardized across the majority of
speakers, you do usually get a standardization within the field, so that all
lawyers or bureaucrats or priests speak a standardized language variant, at
least while they're doing their work.

So, what I'm getting at is that it's not as clear-cut a thing as you've
implied.  Of course, there are some linguists who (nominally) oppose
prescriptivism in all forms, usually on the basis that it is oppressive,
exclusionary, and inhibits language development; but most of these same
linguists would be annoyed if you started calling them "describers" or
"anti-word-dictators".  I think the mainstream view among linguists is that
prescriptivism in everyday language is usually counter-productive (except
sometimes with regard to spelling and writing, since there is often
significant random divergence there without some enforcement from teachers).
 On the other hand, most linguists usually favor at least a weak form of
prescription in specialized fields.


Jebadiah Moore
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