October 28, 2003
Descriptive linguistics explores the "living language." Descriptive linguistics is the theory that gives us new dictionaries every year charting new words, new usages, and even new pronunciations. It’s all about answering the question, “How do they do it, playa?”
It would seem that the prescriptive mode of thinking isn't terribly useful, what with everyone being in general agreement that language is constantly changing. One might express the idea that unless we want the English language to become the new Latin, like orange was the new pink last season (SO last season), we should avoid prescriptive linguistics.
Everyone likes to belittle semantics as being a niggling area of philosophy which belabors every argument with some new way to say, “Not necessarily.” And perhaps it does. But semantics is critical because it allows people engaged in a debate to understand one another perfectly by defining the terms to be used clearly and succinctly in order to establish how they will be used throughout the rest of the debate.
Notice how even textbooks in school engage in this practice. This is an application of prescriptive linguistics.
If you’re engaged in a debate and let’s say you’re talking about how some something-or-another is good or bad and your partner in the debate disagrees. The first step is to make sure you’re talking about the same thing, right? You have to define your terms and establish your premises. That way you can hammer away at the various arguments in order to arrive at the truth.
I, personally, enjoy semantic arguments quite a bit because of the clarity of thought that results from defining every concept as clearly as possible.
So, what do you do if you partner responds by showing you a dictionary after you’ve asserted a definition of a particular term that you’re using?
Most dictionaries attempt to record the various usages of a given word, which may span several distinct concepts.
Take the word “run” for example. Just go look it up! There are WAY lots of definitions just for that one word!
But for the debate to move on, you have to agree to use the word to apply to a single concept within the context of your conversation. So, back to the question of what to do when someone shows you a dictionary? The only thing you can do. Agree that, indeed, there are contexts in which all of those various definitions may find application, but given your specific context only a single definition is applicable.
So, if anyone reading this ever becomes engaged in a legitimate debate with me, do not show me a dictionary when you want to establish a contrary meaning for a particular word. Just tell me how you mean to use the word and I will tell you how I mean it, we will reach an agreement and move on if at all possible.
And yes, I’m bringing it up because I’ve observed several occasions recently where this lack of understanding about prescriptive v. descriptive linguistics has played into an otherwise titillating debate. The silver lining is that lots of people out there do know their ABC’s.
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