The Braille Song—Innocuous Mustard SpecGram Vol CLVIII, No 1 Contents The Theory of Sense—Why No One Should Bother To Find Out If It Works—Prof. Trent Slater

Linguists Don’t Need Prescriptivists
(or Monolinguals—and Pig Latin is Not Enough)

A contrasting viewpoint from Dr. D. Schkrbtov

I was very disturbed and exceedingly disappointed when I first read Afiresay, Iresaf, and Safopireop’s screed “Linguists Need Prescriptivists (and probably Pig Latin, too)”, for a variety of different reasons. The authors, in discussing language games and their importance to the field of linguistics, only mention the English transformative “games” Pig Latin and Opish. (Really, was that the best they could come up with? Even first-years should know something of Cazarny, or Obby Dobby, or Cockney Rhyming Slang!)

They also make a passing reference to French Verlan, but they don’t really take seriously the idea of language games in other languages. Aren’t Katajjait (Inuit throat games), Fufajskij Jazik (Russian), Jerigoza (Spanish), Língua do ‘i’ (Portuguese), and Madárnyelv (Hungarian) all just as interesting, valuable, and useful to a linguist? Do professional linguists even care about prescriptivism in Chulym or Chemehuevi or Kallawaya?

Of course not. This is just one more example of the monolingualist bias among English speakers and the academics whose bread is buttered in English-language journals. And that monolingualism is perhaps a natural outgrowth of prescriptivism: if one dialect can be deemed exclusionarily better than another, why can’t one language similarly be found better than another, or all others?

Worse than the cultural and philosophical blunting of the will to learn another language, English prescriptivism actively inhibits the acquisition of some foreign languages, particularly among the more educated, the group most likely to otherwise seek out second language acquisition opportunities.

How many of us have endured classes in even the most commonly taught languages, like Spanish or German, in which students struggle to make sense of the distinction between “where” and “where to” (Sp. dónde vs. adónde; German wo vs. wohin). This distinction is natural and normal in many dialects of English that use constructions such as *Where are you going to? I’ve starred this utterance to make the point that prescriptivists (including linguistics professors when grading papers!) don’t allow it, though native speakers who use it are more likely to translate it correctly, for example, into Spanish as ¿Adónde vas?

Losing that distinction makes it fractionally harder to learn and become fluent in even run-of-the-mill languages like Spanish or German. Other prescriptivist nonsense introduces more learning “drag,” slowing down English-speaking second language learners. This added difficulty is just another nudge into the Monolingual Shame Spiral: a sense of incompetence in learning a foreign language leads to shame, which leads to a defensive pride in one’s monolingualism, which leads to even less competence in learning a foreign language (where there is no will, there is no way!).

To the editors of SpecGram, who published this pro-prescriptivist tripe in the first place, I say this:

Sirs, you may have doomed us all.

To all decent linguists, I say: Rage, rage against the prescriptivist machine and/or the dying of the descriptivist light!

The Braille Song—Innocuous Mustard
The Theory of Sense—Why No One Should Bother To Find Out If It Works—Prof. Trent Slater
SpecGram Vol CLVIII, No 1 Contents