A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Controlling Language

I've been thinking a lot about prescriptivism and descriptivism lately. You should probably be able to tell it based on the rest of this blog, but I'm firmly descriptivist. And one of the subjects this led me thinking to was how futile the efforts of prescriptivists are. After all, I thought, you can't control a whole language!

But then I remembered: Isn't the whole point of descriptivist philosophy that a language comes from the people who speak it? Isn't that a form of control?

So, you wind up with two statements here that you need to balance:

1.People who speak a language make the rules for it by how they speak it.
2.It is impossible for people to control how other people speak a language.

There may be base "rules" in languages, but they change over time through language evolution. And language doesn't magically change on its own - people have to start speaking it differently. But is that really a form of "control"?

I say it is. When we're deciding whether language is this distant amorphous deity which we have no power over or something that we control completely and utterly, there really is only one thing that needs to be taken into account: Whose speaking are you trying to control?

When you control how you yourself speak - when you actively make the effort to say "is not" or "are not" instead of "ain't" - that is away of controlling language. That is natural, you have the power and right to do that, and it contributes to language evolution either way.

But, when you try to control how someone else speaks - when you yell at them for saying "ain't" instead of "are not" - then you should feel how completely out of control you are. Because one person does not control a language - evolution is made by every single speaker speaking the language their way.

So yes, language is in your control. YOUR control - not your English teacher's, not your parents'. Sorry prescriptivists, you simply can't win.

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