Lynne Truss’s linguistics lesson

Lynne Truss says:

When I was deeply mired in linguistic debate a few years ago (for which I was seriously unqualified), it became clear to me that the academic study of the English language (and this includes the lexicographers) was entirely concerned with looking cool and broad-minded and “descriptive”, when what was required was some positive action to remedy literacy levels, and so on. A “descriptive” linguist is one that monitors the changes in language, and in case you think there is any other kind of linguist, there isn’t. “Prescriptive” does exist as a term in linguistic circles, but only as a powerful juju word used against bad people who model themselves on King Canute.

… It does seem weird to me that we hear all the time about a crisis in literacy, and at the same time there are well-paid academics just sitting back and enjoying the show. Imagine if other academic fields were dominated entirely by a “descriptive” ethos: we could have “descriptive” epidemiologists, perhaps, who just sat back with a clipboard and monitored the way we all died from contagious diseases. Or “descriptive” architects, who collected large salaries for watching and making detailed notes while all the buildings fell down.

As it happens, I myself have written a brief introduction to linguistics. Here it is:

Linguistics is the study of language.


Now to get a bit more technical.

In order for you to study something, that something has to exist (or at least have existed in the past). This means that linguists are restricted to studying language the way it is or the way it used to be or the way it has changed. They can’t study language the way they might like it to be in their ideal world, because their ideal world does not exist.

Another little-known fact is that the existence of descriptive linguistics does not prevent anyone from judging any aspect of language, whether they are a linguist or not.

Now, I should point out that I’ve also written a brief introduction to epidemiology:

Epidemiology is the study of where and how diseases appear and spread.

It has nothing to do with treating these diseases; there are other people who do that. But this doesn’t mean epidemiologists are non-judgemental about disease. I think most of them are probably anti. And, for the people who are developing and administering treatments, it’s damned useful to know what the epidemiologists have found.

So descriptive linguists are just like epidemiologists. They observe and analyse what actually happens. Any value-judgements they may have are not a part of this work.

If a linguist or a blogger or a newspaper columnist or anyone else has decided that the language is ill and needs treatment, it’s damned useful to know what linguistic ailments exist, and under what circumstances they appear and spread.

If you want to be a prescriptivist, you need the descriptivists. They have the data you need so that you can decide which prescriptions are the most urgent.

And, if you really think you can succeed, nothing’s stopping you from trying.

But, as King Canute well knew, and as he set out to prove, you cannot turn back the tide.

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  • Rob Kerr  On January 8, 2014 at 9:56 am

    There is certainly a reason for Lynne’s posts on the Telegraph site not being opened for comments.

  • gnaddrig  On January 9, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Maybe you cannot turn the tide, but did not Moses part the waters of the Red Sea with his prescriptive staff?

  • slipperywitch  On January 14, 2014 at 6:22 pm

    I never did like Lynne Truss.

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