Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Lots of times, when I say I’m a linguist (at least, a linguist-to-be), people tend to think that’s synonymous with “Grammarian”. Next thing you know, people are trying to drop in “whom” and all sorts of obscure, eighth-grade-english-teacher grammar points. Although the attempts are flattering, it’s really not what we do.

I’ve touched on the difference between descriptivism and prescriptivism a few times before (here, here and here), but I think it’s time for a formal discussion of the differences.

So, two professors walk into a bar. One, from the English department at the local university, is a steadfast prescriptivist. The other, is a descriptivist from the local Linguistics department. As they’re sitting there, the people in the booth behind them begin talking.

Patron One: “Hey, ain’t that the prettiest little thang over there back behind the bar? I wonder where she came from!” Patron Two: “Wait, who’s you talkin’ about? Oooh, I see. She’s purty.” Patron One: “Aww, damnit. She just left with Wallace.”

The prescriptivist would hear that and think that their speech is “incorrect”. “Ain’t” ain’t a word, you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, and the second man should have said “Wait, about whom are you talking?”. To him, their language would sound grating, uneducated, and just “wrong”.

The descriptivist, on the other hand, would hear the conversation differently. He’d realize (if nothing else from the look of raw fury on his companion’s face) that the language used was outside of traditional grammatical rules. However, he wouldn’t say it’s “wrong”. Obviously, both men accomplished something through their communication, and there was a mutual understanding of what was said. The wording wasn’t painfully ambiguous, and overall, the utterance (linguist-speak for a bit of language) functioned just fine. Also, he might notice that “whom” wasn’t used even in the context where it historically has been, possibly indicating a fall from favor among this particular group of speakers.

If you have trouble remembering which is which, just look at the names. The descriptivist describes the language used, without judging it. The prescriptivist prescribes a certain pattern of language use (just like a doctor would prescribe a diet), and feels that deviations are “incorrect”.

Linguists, in general, lean towards being descriptivists, because the field of linguistics is largely dedicated to describing language. Your Grade school english teachers were likely prescriptivists (I’m sorry Mrs. F, but “a lot” will likely be one word by the time your great great grandkids are born). They’re just two different perspectives on language usage, and each has its place.

So, when you talk to a linguist, talk like you would to anybody else. We’re always listening to language, but we’re not judging. Let your prepositions roam free, and worry not about superfluous whom insertion. As long as we understand each other, it’s all good.

(As a parting gift of sorts, here’s my favorite joke on the subject.)

A young, college Freshman walks into the English department on his campus, clearly lost. He walks up to a old man in an open office.
Timidly, he asks “Excuse me, where’s the library at?”
The professor scoffs with distaste.
“Young man, if you’d like answers from me, I’d advise you never to end your sentences with prepositions.”
The young student stands back, thinking for a second, and then rephrases his question. “Where’s the library at, you old fart?”


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