March 21, 2007

The Social Life of Prescriptivism

The recent discussions of language gripes and prescriptivism on Language Log (links below) tell an important part of the story, but the sociolinguistic angle is largely lacking, probably because Language Log, alas, has no card-carrying sociolinguists who post here regularly. So when Lauren Squires sent me some comments about these issues, I thought they were worth a wider audience: the result is below.

Sally Thomason has allowed me to hijack her Language Log access to post an addition to some recent LL discussions. There have been several posts lately regarding linguistic prescriptivism and its public manifestation, namely in the form of "abusage" forums and online griping. Coming from the sociolinguistics side of the field, I wanted to share with interested readers some relevant corners of linguisticky research around prescriptivist issues. You might not find this stuff by doing a search on prescriptivism per se, but it seems as if prescriptivism is a cluster concept pointing to several related terms, among them language attitudes, language ideologies, folk linguistics, linguistic awareness and metalanguage, language correctness, and language standardization. In fact, maybe one way to look at prescriptivism is as an outcome of the social processes these terms describe. From this perspective, sociolinguists have learned a good deal about griping and what drives it.

Sociolinguistics is concerned with the question not only of how people speak, but of how they think about how they and others speak. You thus have people studying language attitudes, seeking to identify and understand what people think about linguistic variation: Why do Michiganders think they speak the most "correct" form of English in the United States? Why do people judge speakers with certain non-English-accented English as less socially desirable, less intelligent, or less agreeable than speakers without a discernible accent? How many Detroiters fail to recognize "Canadian" phonological features within their own speech community? (For excellent references on this topic, see Harold Schiffman's page of bibliographies on Language Attitudes.)

Then there's the language ideologies work, which goes beyond what people think about language to ask what social processes underlie the attitudes, often by appealing to political systems, historical influences, socioeconomic structure, and semiotic processes that turn language into a carrier of social meaning in various ways. Language ideologies are often defined as sets of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that influence how people use language (by imposing some sort of schema about what is "right," "appropriate," or whatever), and they also serve as speakers' means of rationalizing or otherwise explaining the language that they or someone else uses.

In the case of the United States, one can make a pretty good argument that our dominant language ideologies include ideas about there being one standard style that is considered "correct," that language can be something subject to judgments of "correctness" to begin with, and that nation-states are best off when their citizens speak one unified language. Studies on standardization, and particularly with regard to English, point out that in literate societies, ideas of "standard" become even more salient and powerful because of the tendency of print to "freeze" language or at least impose stratification on its use, elevating some formal or allegedly generic style above more colloquial or regional ones.

You can also argue that the written form serves as a trigger for linguistic awareness, on which there seems to be less research but which is of no less importance (if you ask me!). In order to make a usage gripe, you have to be aware of the linguistic feature you're griping about. You may be more aware because you were taught something about it, or you may notice it because it varies a lot among your acquaintances, or there may be something that makes it especially salient because of the kind of linguistic thing it is (phoneme, morpheme, word, spelling, etc.). You may also be more aware of it because it's been culturally packaged: invoking a term from Dennis Preston's work, a linguistic feature or language variety can become a folk linguistic artifact that circulates through the culture, picking up different social connotations along the way. Standard English is most certainly one of these, and so are "Ebonics," "Spanglish," "Southern drawl," and "Netspeak."

In public discourse (and educational settings), these are framed as distinct varieties to be either aspired to or avoided, having either high or low mainstream social prestige. We can pinpoint some contents of the artifacts, too, in media reports: about change in language as language decay, about linguistic "revolution" as socially harmful, about how no one sends thank-you notes any more, about how multilingualism is a threat to the health of English and Americans, about how emoticons are rampant in school essays, about how you'd better understand your teenagers' online lingo fast, before it's too late and they're pregnant or in rehab or, worse, cavorting with a sexual predator.

So, the gripers. You have people who believe that there's a correct way of speaking and writing, and who impose that belief on others. For them, what they are doing is fighting for the truth, tradition, and the Natural Order of Language. While lots of them may have some interest in language and its inner workings, for most, language is simply a material/symbolic system that gets roped into social Othering. Language is accessible, convenient, and flexible for use in doing so: it's always there, it's always changing, and it's always going to be socially differentiated. With linguistic variation, it seems that the grass is always greener on the other side, if you're talking about a usage associated with an appealing group of people (swoon those Aussies with their exotic diphthongs!), or it's greener on your side, if you're talking about a usage associated with a somehow undesirable group (shakes fist those Mexicans/teens/rednecks and their bad English!).

When you give gripers an outlet for their opinions, they're going to feel validated, and they're going to enjoy the feeling that their comments are helping to preserve the Natural Order. Maybe they see it as their duty, or maybe it's just a playful pastime. Either way, it's not (entirely) their fault, and it reflects issues beyond what people are taught about language. It's the reality of the social divisions we are constantly reproducing — every day, all the time, each of us. While I agree that it would be nice to get some teachable moments out of the gripes, I'm not certain that it would ultimately change anything until some deeper cultural issues were addressed.

Perhaps what Mark Liberman is asking for in terms of "serious social science of prescriptivism" is yet a different line of research; maybe we also need a quantitative, demographic breakdown of what kinds of people are bothered by split infinitives and who is likely to pooh-pooh the use of singular generic they. But we already have a pretty rich set of sociolinguistic analyses that show us something about why people have the gripes about language in the first place, why they probably feel compelled to publicize them, and what social effects this activity has.

I suggest that even if we had the numbers on who hates what where when, we'd still be left asking that why.

Thanks to Sally for letting me post this, and thanks to Language Log for continuing to bring interesting linguistic questions to the public. I welcome feedback, requests for specific references, or corrections. You can reach me either through the comments section of this cross-post at my blog, or via email: lsquires at umich dot edu

Posted by Sally Thomason at March 21, 2007 04:29 PM