Descriptivism in Language

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

In her summary of the typical "descriptive-prescriptive binary," Anne Curzan says that "[d]escriptivism focuses on what speakers do with language, based on empirical evidence; prescriptivism lays down rules for what speakers should do with language" (Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History, 2014). Portra Images/Getty Images

Descriptivism is a nonjudgmental approach to language that focuses on how it is actually spoken and written. Also called linguistic descriptivism. Contrast with prescriptivism

In the article "Beyond and Between the 'Three Circles,'" linguist Christian Mair has observed that the "study of human languages in the spirit of linguistic descriptivism has been one of the great democratic enterprises of the past two centuries of scholarship in the humanities.

. . . In the twentieth century, structuralist descriptivism and ​sociolinguistics have . . . taught us to respect the structural complexity, communicative adequacy and creative-expressive potential of all the world's languages, including socially stigmatised working-class and ethnic speech" (World Englishes: New Theoretical and Methodological Considerations, 2016).

Views on Prescriptivism and Descriptivism 

"Excepting only in certain educational contexts, modern linguists utterly reject prescriptivism, and their investigations are based instead on descriptivism. In a descriptivist approach, we try to describe the facts of linguistic behaviour exactly as we find them, and we refrain from making value judgments about the speech of native speakers. . . .

"Descriptivism is a central tenet of what we regard as a scientific approach to the study of language: the very first requirement in any scientific investigation is to get the facts right."

Trask, Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. Routledge, 1999)

The Realm of Descriptivism

"When we observe a linguistic phenomenon, such as the ones we observe on the Web, and report on what we see (i.e., the ways people use language and the way they interact), we are usually within the realm of linguistic descriptivism. For instance, if we take inventory of the specific linguistic features of the discourse of a given speech community (e.g., gamers, sports enthusiasts, technology majors), we are within the realm of descriptivism.

 A speech community, as Gumperz (1968:381) points out, is 'any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage.' Descriptivism involves observing and analyzing, without passing too much judgment, the habits and practices within speech communities, focusing on language users and uses without attempting to get them to modify their language according to standards external to the language itself. Descriptive linguistics aims to understand the ways people use language in the world, given all of the forces that influence such use. Prescriptivism lies at the other end of this continuum and is usually associated with stipulating rules and norms for language use."
(Patricia Friedrich and Eduardo H. Diniz de Figueiredo, "Introduction: Language, Englishes, and Technology in Perspective." The Sociolinguistics of Digital Englishes. Routledge, 2016)

On Speaking With Authority About Language

"Even the most descriptive of linguists have not shied away from describing theirs as the only acceptable approach to grammar nor from ridiculing and condemning the prescriptivist statements of others.

"To a great extent, this is a story of a contest about who speaks authoritatively about the character of language and the methods for analyzing and describing it. The story reflects a continuing struggle to gain the exclusive right to speak authoritatively about language. The details reveal that prescriptivism remains entrenched in ostensibly descriptive as well as admittedly prescriptive approaches. For one thing, despite a professed commitment to descriptivism, professional linguists sometimes espouse prescriptivist positions, though not often about particular items of style or grammar."
(Edward Finegan, "Usage." The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, ed. J. Algeo. Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Descriptivism vs. Prescriptivism

"[D]escriptivism is like common law, which works on precedent and accumulates slowly over time.

Prescriptivism is an authoritarian version of code law, which says precedent be damned: if the rule book says this is the law, that's that."
(Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak. Delacorte, 2011)

"At more rarefied levels, prescriptivism has become a four-letter word, with scholars arguing that it is neither desirable nor feasible to attempt to intervene in the 'natural' life of language. A deliberate renunciation of prescriptivism is more like atheism than agnosticism: a conscious nonbelief is, itself, a belief, and a refusal to intervene is essentially prescriptivism in reverse. In any event, in their rush away from prescriptivism, linguists may have abdicated a useful role as arbiters and many have left much of the field open to those stylized as 'language shamans' by Dwight Bollinger, one of the few linguists who was willing to write about the 'public life' of language. Bolinger rightly criticized the obvious crank elements, but he also understood the desire, however ill-informed, for authoritative standards."
(John Edwards, Sociolinguistics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2013)

Pronunciation: de-SKRIP-ti-viz-em

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Descriptivism in Language." ThoughtCo, Apr. 3, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 3). Descriptivism in Language. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Descriptivism in Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 16, 2018).