A descriptivist and a prescriptivist approach to language description

Topics: Linguistics, Grammar, English language Pages: 9 (1968 words) Published: October 15, 2014
A descriptivist and a prescriptivist approach to language description Language is in a constant state of flux (Barreto, 1998, p. 49). Speakers over generations use language differently. For example, people once used “thou” in English, now they do not. Such changes bring forth contrasting attitudes. Some accept and observe the changes, noticing how the language is actually being used by the speakers while others propose a rigid set of rules to prevent the language’s “deterioration”. The ones who accept the changes are generally recognized to have adopted a “descriptivist” approach while the others, who prefer a set of rules, belong to the “prescriptivist” approach. While the descriptive and prescriptive approaches differ in both their history and the rules they follow, both methods can be used to great effect for English learners. Language is dynamic in nature. It changes from one generation to the next. Each change brings forth new developments to the language’s grammatical structure. This is because grammar is an essential part of a language. In fact, language will not make sense without grammar (Backstrom, 2006). David Crystal wrote in the article, In Word and Deed, “Grammar is the structural foundation of our ability to express ourselves. The more we are aware of how it works, the more we can monitor the meaning and effectiveness of the way we and others use language” (Crystal, 2004). In other words, grammar is a collection of rules concerning what counts as socially acceptable and unacceptable language use. Historically, there have always been efforts to preserve language and its grammatical structure. The preservation of language has often been tied to the influence of various religious institutions. Some examples are Western Christianity’s propagation of Latin, usage of the Hebrew alphabet by Judaism, Arabic alphabet by Islam, Greek and Cyrillic alphabets by Eastern Orthodoxy among many others (Diringer, 1947). In the eighteen century, as the British Empire expanded, efforts were put forward to develop regulations for the English language. It was not until the publications of the Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 by Samuel Johnson and Robert Loweth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar in 1762 that the English language was standardized for the first time (Dr. Shadyah, 2003). These texts were recognized as authoritative works for the English language and were rarely challenged for over a hundred and fifty years. However, the most important and thorough prescriptivist work of the twentieth century was “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage”, written by H.W. Fowler in 1926. Fowler’s work was followed by another authoritative and influential work of the twentieth century in the United States, “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, published in 1959 (Acocella, 2012). Meanwhile, in the 1920’s and 30’s, serious criticisms against the prescriptivist approach began to emerge. Structural linguists of the time theorized that language can’t be legislated and that it had its own internal rules (Acocella, 2012). The dispute heated up with the publication of the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961, a work which was very descriptivist in its nature and sparked a controversy among the linguists that remains today (Nunberg, 1983). Edward Finegan of the University of Southern California sums up the difference between a descriptivist and a prescriptivist: “Descriptivist asks the question, ‘What is a language like – what are its forms and how do they function in various situations?’ By contrast, prescriptivist ask ‘What should a language be like – what forms should people use and what functions should they serve?’” (Finegan, 1980). In other words, descriptivist approach is the systematic study and description of a language. It refers to the structure of a language as it is actually used by speakers and writers, while prescriptivist approach is a set of rules and...

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Finegan, E. (1980).  Attitudes toward language usage.
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