Rescriptivism: the new school of linguistic thought

If you’ve ever heard (or been a part of) an argument on the finer points of english grammar that’s stretched on long enough, you’ve likely heard the words “prescriptivism” and “descriptivism”. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, these are the two main schools of linguistic thought, which often butt heads when the unsuspecting pedant learns that their intended target holds equally strong contrary opinions. In a nutshell, the difference goes like this:

A prescriptivist sees language as a set of rules to be followed. They seek to enforce those rules, usually by telling other people how wrong they are when they break them. They often reject processes like phonological shifts and semantic drift as inherently invalid and try to retard them as such. Descriptivism is common among non-linguistists, as it is the far more intuitive of the two.

A descriptivist, on the other hand, sees language as a phenomenon to be studied. They seek to understand it and the way it’s used, usually by making up words like “morphosyntactic” and “alveolo-palatal”. They see processes of linguistic evolution as fascinating natural structures and try to characterize them as such. Prescriptivism is common among linguists, as you can only get so far into a linguistics degree by telling people to stop ending their sentences with prepositions (I assume—I’ve never tried to get a linguistics degree).

Of the two, I consider descriptivism to be the far more enlightened viewpoint. I see prescriptivism as a lawful-evil, and descriptivism as a lawful-good. However, I would not quite classify myself as a descriptivist. As anyone who knows me in real life can confirm, I am not a lawful person.

That’s why I’ve decided to take it upon myself to start a new school of linguistic thought. One that accounts for not only the fluid and constructed nature of all language, but also its utility, and our agential roles within it. One that gives me a justification for why I’ve recently started voicing the fricative at the end of “dice” and insist on inserting a H into the word “H”. Thus, I now present the chaotic side of linguistic theory: rescriptivism.

A rescriptivist sees language as a tool to be honed. They seek to change it by changing speakers’ behavior, usually by trying to convince other people to reform spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. They not only accept natural processes of linguistic evolution, but often try to accelerate them. Despite the fact that I just made it up, rescriptivism can be said to be the driving force behind auxlangs (such as Pandunia), spelling reforms (such as Webster’s), and gender-neutral language (such as singular “they”).

Unlike prescriptivism and descriptivism, rescriptivism covers both ends of the chaotic row and everything in between. It can be good if it is used to make the language simpler or more neutral, as when “-ise” becomes “-ize”, evil if it is used to make the language harder to learn or further a malevolent agenda, as when “forced labor camp” becomes “company picnic”, or pure chaotic-neutral if it is used for fun, as when “boxes” becomes “boxen”. Furthermore, rescriptivist movements tend to be quite controversial, so the placement of any one on the good-neutral axis will always be subjective. For example, from my point of view, Idiom Neutral is evil.

I like this framework, because it casts arguments between prescriptivists and feminists about whether “chairperson” is a real word as a conflict between lawful evil and chaotic good. I also like it because it makes me sound more legit; when I insist that periods should go outside of quotation marks because it would make more sense that way and someone else exclaims that that’s not how language works, I can just sip my tea, adjust my monocle, and say “I subscribe to the rescriptivist school of linguistic thought.”.

The formalization of rescriptivism is past due. The linguistic binary has held for too long. Each one of us is a member of the native speaker community of at least one language. If that language is inefficient, or doesn’t make sense, then w’all can—nay, w’all must—fix it w’all’s selves. The alternative is to forever live failing to abide by pointless rules that set upon ourselves. The fact that anglophones regularly struggle to decline “alumnus” in their own native language is a case and a point. Rescriptivism is the way of the future, and definitely a real word. I hope this blag post has managed to convince at least one of ye of that. If not, then, well, I guess it can’t be helped, but I could certainly care less.

One thought on “Rescriptivism: the new school of linguistic thought

  1. I really like this framing. It seems obvious once I think about it, which is a sign of a good idea.

    This explains and justifies why I don’t care about most linguistic drift (“symmetrical”), but why I’m against “literally” as “figuratively” and for the singular “they” (they remove and add expressive ability, respectively, with little change to cognitive load).


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