8.1657, Sum: Prescriptivism

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Wed Nov 19 10:59:01 UTC 1997

LINGUIST List:  Vol-8-1657. Wed Nov 19 1997. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 8.1657, Sum: Prescriptivism

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Date:  Tue, 18 Nov 1997 13:42:38 +0200
From:  "Di Kilpert" <kilpert at iafrica.com>
Subject:  Prescriptivism

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Tue, 18 Nov 1997 13:42:38 +0200
From:  "Di Kilpert" <kilpert at iafrica.com>
Subject:  Prescriptivism

I would like to thank all those kind people who sent me their definitions
of and comments on prescriptivism in response to my posting of Wed 12 Nov..

Here are some definitions:

"Prescriptivism means to put forward ideas about the correctness or not of
a language.  In a language this means having 'rules' against which you can
check if a certain word etc. 'may' be used."

"prescriptivism or normativism approaches language as a tool that can and
should be improved, rather than as a unconscious knowledge to be described.
it also advocates the choice of one of several socio-cultural variants of a
language as "better" than other."

"Prescriptivism is the belief that there is only one correct way to speak
and write."

"Prescriptivism is the doctrine that an educator (or presumed expert)
should change the speech or writing of an individual toward some putative

"I would say that being prescriptive was simply teaching standard written
English to those who want to communicate seriously.  It doesn't necessarily
make it silly to say that all forms of Engish are acceptable in their own

"I would suggest a kind of postructuralist definition of prescriptivism,
taking every instance of describing language systematically as a kind of
explicit or implicit censorship.  But I would not dare to give a precise

(I haven't listed the authors here, as I don't know whether they want to be

Thank you to

Marc Picard, Jim Walker, Wannie Carstens, David Gaatone, Antje Hornscheidt,
Alan Smith, Waruno Mahdi, William Morris and Angus B. Grieve-Smith.

Most respondents went far beyond the call of duty and gave me detailed
commentaries, which are much appreciated.  They also supplied me with many
valuable references.  I am particularly indebted to Bill Morris for a long
discussion and for his categorization of different types of prescriptivism,
and to Antjie Hornscheidt for her comments on "the hidden prescriptivism of
descriptive linguistics". Also to Wannie Carstens for the phone
conversation putting me straight about some misinformation I had about

Thank you also incidentally to the 50 or so linguists who took part in a
huge debate in the Linguist in May-Aug 1994 about prescriptivism and the
role of the linguist.  This has  provided me with lots of useful material.

My interest in this area of research springs from personal experience as an
ex-prescriptivist (or semi-converted one) who is a newcomer to linguistics
as a "science".
My concern is that outsiders' misunderstanding of linguists'
anti-prescriptivism has damaged the image of linguistics.  I also have a
sneaking suspicion that there is no such thing as pure description in
linguistics. Anyone wishing to shoot me down in flames is welcome to e-mail

The anti-prescriptivist stance seems to me responsible for a lot of
linguistic split personalities.  Isn't it time for clarification of the
issues involved ?

More than the actual information, it is wonderful to have the support and
encouragement of all you kind people out there.  It makes research much
less lonely and more fun.

Di Kilpert

LINGUIST List: Vol-8-1657

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