Studying Linguistics in university changed my life.
It lead me to travel the world and dive into the languages and cultures of far-off lands, including Japan, Bangladesh, and Taiwan.
Linguistics also helped me develop a greater appreciation of my home language and culture, including the many regional dialects, accents, and linguistic varieties found right here in the United States.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from Linguistics was learning the difference between “prescriptive linguistics” and “descriptive linguistics.”
This critical distinction accounts for the vast majority of the language-related arguments I’ve had with friends, family, and internet trolls.
So what is the difference and why does it matter?
Descriptive linguists, as you can guess by the name, describe how people communicate.
They focus on how real people actually talk with friends and family (i.e. with their “in-group”), as opposed to how they might speak or write in more formal settings (i.e. with their “out-group”).
They consider all speech patterns produced by adult native speakers to be “correct” if they are understood and shared by their speech community. Barring slips of the tongue, they argue that native speakers don’t make grammatical “mistakes” (despite the claims of many grammar mavens and pedants).
They know that languages change and evolve, and what is considered “right” today may be “wrong” in a few decades (and vice versa).
While they acknowledge the importance of language education and standardization in a given society, Descriptive Linguists do not consider any dialect to be superior to any other. For example, in their view, the Queen’s English, Cockney, General American English, African-American English, and New Zealand English are ALL equally valid and important dialects.
Prescriptive linguists, in contrast, prescribe how they think people should speak or write.
They believe that the “rules” they learned in school are in fact “laws” that must never be broken.
They consider style guides like The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White as Bible-esque sacred texts never to be questioned.
They hold that the arbitrary stylistic preferences of certain 18th century British authors hold inherent moral and intellectual superiority.
They argue that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to speak and write, and that informal flavors of a language are lesser than their more formal counterparts.
They believe that how you speak demonstrates your level of intelligence, which is fraught with peril as it can lead to linguistic bigotry: thinking that we’re better than other people because of how we speak.
Why I Side With Descriptive Linguists
I am not a religious person, but please allow me to quote a beautiful passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
“To every thing there is a season,
A time for every purpose under the heaven.”
Human languages have evolved myriad flavors of communication appropriate to every “season” and “purpose.” And this evolution never stops, progressing country to country, generation to generation, and individual to individual.
As a member of a given culture, generation, or speech group, you know exactly which mode of dress and speech is appropriate for each context you encounter day to day. Just as you wouldn’t wear a tuxedo to a friend’s poolside BBQ or sweats to a job interview, you wouldn’t speak the same way to a potential boss and your spatula-wielding pal.
Clothing is in fact the perfect metaphor for language usage. Instead of thinking of certain flavors of language as inherently “right” or “wrong,” think of them as different outfits appropriate for a very specific social contexts.
Hanging out with high school friends? Time for slang and sweatpants. Giving a speech at a formal fundraiser? Time to don a tuxedo and leave the F-bombs at home.
Just because someone uses slang in one context, it doesn’t follow that they don’t know how to use more formal, stylized language when the situation demands.
So let’s stop judging someone’s intelligence or erudition based on their accent, vocabulary, or speech patterns. Instead, I encourage you to become a descriptive linguist and celebrate the ability of speech varieties to increase comprehension, demonstrate empathy, and build solidarity.