Four types of language prescriptivism

July 25, 2021

Prescriptivism is an approach to language centred on how it should be used. It contrasts with descriptivism, which is about describing how language is used. Prescriptivism has a bad reputation among linguists and the descriptively minded. I’m in the latter group, but I routinely apply prescriptive rules in my work as a copy-editor. It’s a more nuanced picture than is generally supposed.

I’m selective about the rules I enforce, dismissing the myths that bedevil English usage. I may apply a rule one day and not the next, adjusting to house style or other factors. I also edit texts to make them more inclusive – less ableist and more gender-neutral, for example. That too is prescriptivism, though it’s not usually categorized as such.

When people use language, they’re often influenced or guided by prescriptive advice, instruction, traditions, and norms. That influence, no matter how overt, conscious, or otherwise, must be part of how we describe language and its history. So in some ways descriptivism encompasses prescriptivism, or at least it should.

Book cover is plain in style, pale blue with a red title ('Fixing English') in all caps, then the subtitle in black title case ('Prescriptivism and Language History') and the author's name in black all caps. The word 'Prescriptivism', significantly, has a wavy line under it, as though marked as an error by a word processor.The complexity and apparent conflicts here derive in large part from the tendency to lump prescriptivism into a single category. I do this myself sometimes, for convenience. But by oversimplifying the nature and aims of prescriptivism, we invite confusion, category errors, and semantic muddles.

So how might we bring this fuzzy picture into better focus? One attractive option is proposed by linguist Anne Curzan in her book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which seeks to clarify the heterogeneous nature of prescriptivism and to give it its historical due:

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Words in your personal dictionary

June 30, 2021

A recent highlight of my reading life – which unlike my blogging life has not been overly affected by the pandemic ­– is Eley Williams’s The Liar’s Dictionary (William Heinemann, 2020). It’s a novel that does several things at once, weaving them successfully into a satisfying whole. It’s a story about love: love of people, of life, of words; it’s a mystery that straddles two eras; and it’s a fun, thoughtful exploration of lexicology.

Paperback book cover. The book is white at the top, sky-blue at the bottom, with the two colours divided through the middle with an uneven, curving line, like a torn page. Below the book title is a bird photographed in flight with mouth wide open, its throat red, breast yellow, and head and wing grey. Under the 'tear', the bird's body is in illustrated black and white. The top-half text is in dark purple, the bottom-half text in gold. As well as the title and author's name, there is also: 'Author of Attrib.' and a few short blurbs. Observer: 'A playful delight ... A glorious novel'. Spectator: 'Joyous'. Sunday Times: 'Remarkable'.

Design by Suzanne Dean

Most notably for my purposes here, the book is a word lover’s delight. Williams, who studied mountweazels as part of her PhD, has a deep interest in the nature and business not only of words – their emergence, development, and complex interaction with our minds and expressive apparatus – but also of word collection and definition: the creation and maintenance of dictionaries, and the semantic murk waded through routinely by lexicographers (and occasionally, less systematically, by the rest of us).

In The Liar’s Dictionary, the paraphernalia of writing might be overlaid on anything at all, to sometimes striking effect:

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Brits doing Baltimore accents in The Wire

June 9, 2021

Lately I watched The Wire for the first time since it screened in 2002–08. It holds up really well, thanks to its wealth of characters, superb writing, and enduring political relevance. Afterwards, I read Jonathan Abrams’s acclaimed All the Pieces Matter (No Exit Press, 2018), an oral history composed of carefully interwoven interviews with the show’s cast, crew, and creators.

Book cover shows three characters from The Wire: McNulty and Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) are in a car, Greggs looking ahead and Mcnulty looking out his half-open window, his left hand on the steering wheel. Reflected in his window is Stringer Bell. Behind the car, blurred, is a Baltimore street and overcast sky. Below them all are the book title and author name in white and blue sans-serif caps.The Wire is set in Baltimore and is suffused with Baltimore culture, including its language. Two principal characters, Stringer Bell and Jimmy McNulty, are played by British actors, Idris Elba and Dominic West, who had to adjust their accents to be authentic in their roles. This led to some difficulty, as Abrams’s book reveals.

Co-creator Ed Burns said that West spent a lot of time going over the accent with David Simon: ‘“Now, say it like po-lice.” “Police.” “No, po-lice.”’ Others helped out as well. Peter Gerety, a veteran of stage and screen who played Judge Daniel Phelan, said West asked him for guidance:

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Link love: language (76)

May 13, 2021

A selection of language-themed links for your listening, viewing, and (mostly) reading pleasure.

 

How to say chorizo.

History of the asterisk.

Emoji time 🕙 is meaningless.

Bookselling in the End Times.

Neopronouns: a beginner’s guide.

New Covid-inspired German words.

The linguistic construction of terrorists.

Boyo-wulf: Beowulf translated into Cork slang.

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Spey the planets

April 22, 2021

In a recent post I noted an Irish sense of the word gentle meaning ‘enchanted or visited by fairies’, used in Charles McGlinchey’s book The Last of the Name. That book also features the unusual word spey:

I think it would be a descendant of these Dohertys of Keenagh who was a great harp player, the best in Ireland. One Christmas market he was going to the fair of Carn, but his stepmother, who could spey [foresee] and read the planets, advised him not to go for there was blood over his head. When he insisted on going, she killed a rooster and sprinkled the blood over him.

On his way to Carn, a fight broke out between Catholics and Protestants; Doherty stabbed a man and had to leave the country. His stepmother’s spey proved accurate. Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

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Gently enchanted

April 10, 2021

The Last of the Name by Charles McGlinchey (1861–1954) is an account of life in rural Ireland generations ago: customs, beliefs, practicalities, peculiarities. Published in 1986 with Brian Friel as editor, it is acclaimed as a ‘minor classic’ by Seamus Heaney. It’s also linguistically rich; in this and the next post I’ll note two words that caught my eye.

Cover of 'The Last of the Name' published by Blackstaff Press, 1986. The cover is cream-coloured and dominated by a black and white illustration, almost like a woodcut, of an old woman wearing a shawl and standing in a dark hilly landscape. The book title is in all caps and red typeface above the picture. Below the picture is the author's name in black, followed by the text: 'with an introduction by Brian Friel'First up is gentle, in a supernatural sense not widely known or used. Here’s McGlinchey:

I always heard you should never strike a cow with a holly stick. Holly and hazel are two trees that are gentle [enchanted]. The people used to have a rhyme ‘Holly and hazel went to the wood, holly took hazel home by the lug.’ That meant that holly was the master of the hazel.

[Lug means ‘ear’. The parenthetical gloss for gentle is Friel’s.]

Holly and hazel recur in folk belief and have been credited with protective powers since ancient times. Niall Mac Coitir, in his book Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, writes that in Ireland holly is a crann uasal, a ‘gentle’ or ‘noble’ tree, and that ‘you annoy the fairies when you misuse it, for example by sweeping the chimney with it’.

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Seven videos about language

February 5, 2021

A few years ago I shared six videos about language, so posting seven this time may set a perilous precedent. (I’ve also blogged a bunch of others, before and since, if you want still more audiovisual diversion.)

Below, there are two short, three medium, and two long videos, in that order. See what grabs your fancy.

A wild one to begin: Why Werner Herzog refuses to speak French:

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