Monday, April 2, 2012

Prescriptivism and Descriptivism in the 18th Century

There are two opposing philosophies in the history of linguistics which can be summed up as prescriptivism and descriptivism. Should linguists write how the language ought to be spoken or written, or just record how, in fact, it is spoken or written?

The science of modern linguistics has come firmly down on the descriptive side. They realize that it is not only futile but fruitless to try to prevent a language from changing or to convert all dialects to a standard. But it was not always so.

During the Renaissance (16th and 17th centuries) the “correct” spelling and pronunciation of English words became an important class distinction differentiating between those of refined upper class from the “vulgar” masses. Significantly, it was during this time that the meaning of the word vulgar changed from simply “of the people” (eg Vulgar Latin) to its modern sense of crudeness and inferiority.

During the centuries to follow, linguists would fall into either of the two extremes. Robert Lowth (1710-1787) was a strong prescriptivist; Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) more of a descriptivist. Lowth wrote several books on English grammar in order to “teach what is right”. What he decided was “right” was based largely on his study of Latin. For example, it was Lowth who gave us the rule that sentences should not end with a preposition (now what did he have to do that for?).

Priestly on the other hand was an empirical scientist and understood the importance of observation (as well as a grammarian, he helped discover oxygen and founded Unitarianism in England and later in the United States). His book on grammar, published about the same time as Lowth’s, was based not on Latin principles but on “…a collection of observations on the structure of it…” Priestly had his personal grammatical biases too, however. Like most scientists of his day he had a strong attraction to the idea of simplicity and applied this to English grammar. While keeping English grammar rules simple is a noble objective, he also applied it to the vocabulary and strove to pare English down to its English roots. He particularly disliked what he called “Gallicisms”, that is words recently adopted from French. Priestly’s philosophy on language is summed up in this quote: “I think it not only unsuitable to the genius of a free nation but in itself ill-calculated to reform and fix a language”.

Another linguist of the 18th century, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) started as a prescriptivist and then converted to a descriptivist. Johnson is most famous for his 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, the significance of which I shall devote a later post to (sorry Lowth!). In his proposal for the dictionary to his patron Lord Chesterfield, written in 1747, Johnson describes his goal to bring rule and order to the English language. He compares himself to Caesar about to invade Britain, and expresses the hope that “…though I should not complete the conquest, I shall at least discover the coast, civilize part of the inhabitants, and make it easy for some other adventurer to proceed farther, to reduce them wholly to subjection, and settle them under laws.” He continues to explain “This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary, a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.” Johnson was proposing to single handedly reform the entire English language with his dictionary which he estimated would take him three years to complete.

Johnson’s dictionary was published in 1755, 8 years after the proposal. During this time his goals had shifted. In the preface to the dictionary, Johnson uses much different analogies to describe his work. He had come to recognize that language was continuously subject to change and that the goal of the lexicographer was “to register the language” rather than to fix it. Reforming a language would be like “trying to rope in a river”. He compared the immensity of this task to a story from Greek mythology: “ persue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chase the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.”

But of course Johnson’s 1755 dictionary did in fact serve to “fix” the English language by the very act of recording it. For 150 years until the publishing of the first Oxford English Dictionary, it was the standard reference in both the schools and the home for spelling, pronunciation and definition. In it he codified the spelling reforms made by grammarians during the previous two centuries. In Lecture 21 of The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition [The Great Courses, 2008], Professor Seth Lerer describes the dictionary as “an arbiter of language and a guide to life”.

I maintain there is a place for both prescriptivism and descriptivism in English. In the short term, elementary and high schools must teach students the standard rules of the language – spelling, grammar and punctuation. This is essential for clear, unambiguous communication, not only with one’s neighbor but with speakers of the language around the world. However I also believe that grammarian authorities (whoever they be) need to be more willing to accept natural changes to the language. A case in point is who and whom, discussed in my post of 11 Sept 2011.

Let me finish with a quote from page 20 of Lynne Truss’ delightful book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. She is writing about punctuation but I submit that her argument applies equally to spelling and grammar.

The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an oversensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.


  1. What happened to my comment from earlier today? Great post. Fix your 1855 date, should read 1755, I think.

  2. No idea - didn't see any other comment. Fixed the date - thanks. Should have had Donna proof it first!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. So would you argue that Latin itself had a prescriptivist structure?

  5. Would you be able to provide me with your sources?

    1. The main source for this post was the Great Courses "The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition" [2008] by Professor Seth Lerer.