prescriptivism, kiwis and mammoth supper: an essay

Language is weird. People are weird.

I, myself, am weird.   As bizarre as it sounds I have spent the last couple of days dropping in and out of a kiwi accent whilst talking with friends, in a kind of farcical parallel of code switching. The reason for this? Simply because it’s very, very funny, and speaking in this shared social dialect (or a ‘sociolect’, if you will) has strangely strengthened the bonds between our little group.

There’s bona fide scientific (or at least linguistic) reasoning behind the strange sense of solidarity created by our even stranger verbal choices; the 1987 findings of linguist Lesley Milroy suggest that the more people speak in a certain dialect/ accent (e.g. my ridiculous attempt at a kiwi twang), the more likely they are to keep that dialect/accent (which would explain why I always fall into the accent whilst conversing with the aforementioned friends). The social linguist Labov also found that teenagers in the tourist area of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, regressed further and further into their own specific dialect the longer they spent talking to tourists; in short, they use language as a way to differentiate themselves from “outsiders”, and to cement their own social bonds. (This in itself has a specific name in linguistics; ‘covert prestige’, or the use of non-standard language as a way to gain power.)

so, we have ascertained that:

  • we like to use language as a creative mental stimulus (eg. for fun)
  • and that we use language  as a method of establishing our identities (individually or as a group).

It’s clear that people like to mess around with language. Perhaps it’s evolutionary; retaining strong social bonds has been integral to the survival of humanity, and it therefore stands to reason that communication through language is vital. Consider this from the view point of our good friend, prehistoric man: the more people you can communicate with, the more people you can trade with, date (mate with?) and hunt with. This theory also has linguistic backing; the more a social group’s talk culture (the specific reoccurring trends/patterns of speech used by a group of people, as defined by Deborah Tannen)  grows and expands through a broadening of vocabulary, the more people can be, in some small way, both understood by and included into that social group… And that could be the difference between surviving the winter or not.

The evolutionary benefits of strategically creating pidgin languages for trade, or allowing creole languages to form organically from the meeting of two cultures, also explain why language is a changing beast. People blend words to create new compounds (Baseball! Blueberries! Bitcoin!), form their own individual vocabularies (known as an idiolect) and borrow new phrases or words from other languages as a matter of course.

English is a prime example of this, as it is completely saturated with stolen or introduced words; historically we have always taken from our largest linguistic influences (these being German, French and Latin, which have given use such gems as wanderlust, café and lexicon). However due to the advancement of technology and the global platform of social media, language has become anyone’s game. As such, English is now “chocka” with slang specific to particular regional areas (known in linguistics as regiolects), ethnic groups (known formally as ethnolects), social groups (roadmen, anyone?) and even individual people. Inevitably this has lead to many unique and individual variations of spoken English, which would certainly have been considered undesirable by the BBC 4 presenters of old, what with their perfect Queen’s English and oh-so-regal accents.

Even now, in 21st century Britain, certain factions (*cough* the upper class and academic snobs *cough*) still uphold the view that  received pronunciation is the benchmark by which all language should be judged, despite the linguist Trudgill’s findings that it’s speakers make up only 3% of the population. In the past, received pronunciation and it’s written counterpart, Standard English, were far more popular; their cultural and societal significance grew with the popularisation of the private school system in the 19th century, which perhaps accounts for the links between the upper classes and received pronunciation.

Various linguists have attempted  to push received pronunciation as a “correct” form of English, from what’s known as a ‘prescriptivist’ view point; Daniel Jones’ 1909 handbook, ‘The Pronunciation of English’ aimed to eradicate undesirable pronunciations and cockneyisms, in order to both purify and preserve the English Language. Mark the paradox here; how can you attempt to preserve something fully whilst also removing intrinsic elements of it? David Jones himself eventually decided that received pronunciation was no longer needed- he revised his handbook in 1950 under the opinion that Standard English no longer existed (perhaps as a result of increased diversification following the first and second world war) and that linguistic choices should be left up to the individual.

Despite David Jones’ change of heart, modern day prescriptivists still abound. These prescriptivists seem to be forgetting one simple thing however; languages have grown, changed, diluted and dissolved since the beginning of time.

Imagine if language had always followed the strict rules of prescriptivism, from it’s very conception; chances are, we would probably still be grunting at each other and  chasing mammoths into tar pits.

When thought of with this sense of scale, rather than harkening back only as far as the 1800s, the truth becomes clear;  the prospect of trying to freeze language into the rigid forms of standard English and received pronunciation is downright silly.  In fact, it’s much like following  your poor and terrified mammoth supper into it’s sticky, unmoving grave.

For prehistoric man, mammoths and languages, an unwanted confinement almost always results in a nasty ending; species die out, and evolution ceases entirely.

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “prescriptivism, kiwis and mammoth supper: an essay

  1. I got on at last!

    I really love your original and yet intellectual approach to this Meg- you’ve blended a personal style, an engaging voice, with clear academic teachings and context to create a journalistic piece that doesn’t feel educational until you have finished it! A really impressive piece of critical writing that displays your interpretations of existing AO2 (and good knowledge of AO1) and your wonderfully figurative way of phrasing questions to leave the reader genuinely considering language issues!

    I love this piece. Very happy to give it an A1!

    Like

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