I had an idea today for a new feature for this site. You know how sometimes there are 2 similar concepts you’ve heard about, or 2 things that are related but you’re not quite sure what the difference is? Well hey, why don’t I help with that!
Things like: Accounting vs Bookkeeping, American Rules Football vs Australian Rules Football, Coke vs Pepsi (okay, not really on that last one). Of course I’m going to try and get a bit more cerebral with it. Like today! Well, sort of.
Today I’m going to tell you about the difference between Prescriptive Language and Descriptive Language. Or rather, Mary Rolf is.
I read her excellent article “Why I Stopped Being a Grammar Snob (and why you probably should too)” recently on Medium. It goes on to explain how she used to think that one form of “English” was better than another, and she tells the story of how she got into a class where the professor totally beat that thought out of her:
The most important thing I learned, though, was that there is no such thing as “standard English” with a capital E. Instead there are many “englishes” with a lower case E. There is the english of the Caribbean and the english of the southern United States and the english of Oxbridge and the english rappers use in their music. Traditionally we’re taught that one of these is better than the rest, but in this class I learned that that’s an arbitrary distinction and not necessarily the case.
Hang on, it gets better!
Why? Well, there are two schools of thought when it comes to how we should use language. One is “prescriptive” and it’s backed by grammar snobs and the kind of people who froth at the mouth over the decline of “the King’s English”. The other is “descriptive” and it’s more about accepting that how people use language is how language works. A prescriptivist believes in the idea of standard English and sees mistakes everywhere. A descriptivist sees many englishes, and none of them are standard.
Need another example to get the concept? A friend of mine (who actually has a BA in Linguistics, so she is literally a “cunning linguist”) can help with that:
As for non-standard dialects of English, they can do cool things that standard dialects can’t do. For example, if I use African-American Vernacular English (AAVE, or what is inaccurately termed “ebonics”), I can say, “My sister sick,” or, alternatively, “My sister be sick.”
The former sentence implies a temporary condition, such as the idea that my sister has a cold and can’t come to school today. The latter sentence implies a more long-lasting, chronic condition, such as the idea that my sister has cancer or something of the kind. Try expressing that difference so eloquently in “Standard English” and see how easily you manage. I believe that Newfoundland English has a similar grammatical construction, and the Newfoundland dialect is one that Canadians look down upon greatly.
So yeah, alternate title for this post: “How I learned to stop thinking certain dialects sound ‘dumb’, because by thinking so, I am actually the dumb one”.
Some closing wisdom from my friend:
I guess the takeaway lesson here is: How do you know that you really know what you think you know?