Tag Archives: descriptivism

Words — How do They Work?

After being a human & watching humans for over twenty-three years & also studying them during my time at college, I’ve come to realize that humans love to split hairs over trivial matters. Even though it may not say so on all of our Facebook profiles, it’s definitely one of our most favorite pastimes. And it’s not just an idle craft, the equivalent to crocheting while watching soaps; it’s serious business. I’d even venture to say that it approaches obsessive preoccupation for many people – at least for the vocal ones with Internet access.

With that established, one thing many people (especially ones with Internet ones & blogs like mine) fight about & lose sleep over is language. Our alien observers must know that it’s a big deal to us, language. There are people who really, I mean really, care about grammar & usage & are mortally offended when someone dares to type your when they really mean to say you’re. Oh, & you better be using Oxford commas, you imbecile! And there are those who don’t shut up about the mutable, ever-shifting linguistic sands, & language is in the mouth of its beholders, etc.

There is a never-ending laundry list of language-use issues that people bring up repeatedly with seemingly ever-increasing fervor as people embrace the Internet as the place to go to vent their thoughts (guilty). If you misuse their, there, & they’re you couldn’t be stupider. You must be uneducated if you pronounce so & so a word differently from me. Or is it I? Crap. Send me back to university if I can’t recite Strunk & White verbatim! The worst part is that these arguments are often hateful.

So we have Grammar Nazis & … uhh, enlightened language-hippies? Prescriptivists & descriptivists. Those who seek to draft maps of how language should (logically) work & those who are content to navigate its tangled, uncharted rivers. Okay, maybe my biased language is beginning to show & you’ve figured out that I place myself comfortably within the second camp – the descriptivists, the linguistically enlightened.

Here’s the part where I get really biased & push my side.

I would love to hear less noise about how we should be saying “I’m well” in place of “I’m good.” Largely because those people are, well, more wrong than not. But also because it’s OUR language, not the language of some grammar collecting dust in your university’s library. There are so many people who just have the wrong idea about things. Most dictionary-makers aren’t prescriptivists, yet their words are taken to be the law of the linguistic land by some. It’s as if it’s been forgotten or ignored that the words in the dictionary came from our mouths first & it was those oral actions that gave birth to their more-or-less agreed upon definitions.

There’s way too much hateful attention being paid to language as written, I believe, when it comes to how we speak on the Internet (i.e., informal language). Is it truly that offensive if a person fails to apostrophize contraction it’s, effectively rendering it a possessive its? The horror. I’m almost, almost positive you wouldn’t notice their flub had they been speaking, not writing. And chances are, they can handle it in formal writing. If not, then it’s likely a failure of our education system to teach (note the emphasis on teach) prescriptive rules which oftentimes run contrary to our intuitions about language. In any case, there’s no need for name-calling.

We need more noise from people embracing language’s natural tendencies, OUR natural tendencies – especially from non-linguists. Get the word out! It’s great to me that so many people are indeed enthusiastic about language & how we use it, but not that it means in many cases that such passion is manifested as disgust for fellow humans. We’re all culpable of committing grammatical crimes. And I’ve seen how people hate to be labeled as hypocrites.

At the same time, as someone who has studied evolutionary psychology, I am driven to understand where this behavior comes from. This is just my guess, but I’d venture to say that dialect differences in particular could mark in- versus out-group membership. You don’t speak like me? You can’t be my friend. Furthermore, it’s not impossible that individual differences in language use could serve as markers for intelligence. There’s a reason why you’re asked to know loads of esoteric vocabulary for the GRE.

I don’t want to venture too far down this path because I recognize that evolutionary psychology can be at times a controversial field of study, but I did also want to get those thoughts, however brief, out there for you to mull over. I do invite those who have studied in-/out-group behavior & the relationship between intelligence & linguistic prowess to speak their minds. Though I have a B.A. in psychology & am indeed very interested in human behavior, I consider myself a linguist first & foremost.

As you can tell, this issue of linguistic receptivity is dear to my heart. I don’t just think it’s an interesting measure of individual differences to study – I think it has real-world applicability & must be studied if we are to shed our ignorance about language & encourage diversity & understanding. So everyone go out & learn about language!

Megan L. Risdal

NOTE: For you nerds, this is where the title of this post comes from. I eliminated the obscenity to be nice.

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Filed under Linguistics