Ode to a Prescriptivist
Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist by training and specializes in the study of language variation and change. She is an Assistant Professor in Linguistics and the Director of the newly formed Sociolinguistics Lab at the University of Victoria. This is the first of what we hope will be a monthly column from D’Arcy so be sure to check back next month.
Allow me to introduce myself: I am a language lover and a maverick.
Here’s the thing. My grandmother was the family matriarch. An educator and a philanthropist, she was among the first women to graduate from the University of British Columbia, held a Master of Library Sciences from the University of Washington, and articled at Stanford. She was fiercely independent at a time when such proclivities were less than the norm and she was a firm advocate of correctness. For all things in life there was a right way and a wrong way, so she taught her grandchildren the proper way to do things: build a fire, drink tea, address elders. Perhaps my strongest remembrance of her, though, was her almost reverent love of language and her strict belief in how it was properly used. The rules were the rules. Even as a toddler Grandmother was always Grandmother, never Grandma or Nana. Still, summers at Grandmother’s evoke bucolic memories: a musty-smelling bunk room, purple starfish stranded in tidal pools, snake dens uncovered in the underbrush, sun-drenched blackberries smothered in buttermilk and … grammar lessons over breakfast! Now, I can appreciate that few children enjoy lectures on the redundancy of at this point in time or the reason why she could be excused and yet still may not leave the table. Nor is any eight-year-old particularly enthralled by the dissection of further and farther over her morning bowl of cereal. However, such fond recollections are indelibly etched in my memories of Grandmother.
In the proud tradition of language purists, Grandmother found anything other than ‘the standard’ objectionable. But it was not only ‘bad’ grammar that bothered her. Slang, jargon, and meanings with which she was unfamiliar were also irksome. This is because, true to her prescriptivist heart, she firmly believed that any linguistic change was a bad thing. When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. Since I could never keep straight what was laying and who was lying, this was a lesson that resonated with me. I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue. She was outraged. She demanded the name of my professor and vowed to phone the head of the department to extract an explanation: How could such as esteemed establishment, her own alma mater no less, employ such a reckless (and feckless) individual? Surely this professor was no academic!
(I don’t know if Grandmother ever followed through on that promise, but if she did, I sincerely apologize to the recipient of that particular call!)
Now, the fact that Grandmother influenced me to become a student of the English language is perhaps unremarkable in and of itself. But I didn’t actually stop there. I am not only a linguist but a sociolinguist (of all things!). I describe language as actually used and I revel in the differences and variations of language in practice. Despite my proud ancestry, there is no place for prescription in my world. The notion of should does not apply. This seems a great irony when viewed from the perspective of my family history. Having been weaned on the right way to use English and how not to abuse the language, my non-conformist leanings seemed at best incongruous and at worst somewhat treasonous. But then I realized that the lineage is indeed intact. Grandmother’s love for language endures. Its form is different but the substance is the same. Grandmother taught me to revere the spoken word. I do. She taught me to heed not only the content but also the form. I do. She also taught me that not everybody speaks the same way. And it is this fundamental truth that makes me excited to go to work every day.
So please don’t watch your words. To quote a friend, ‘I like the way you talk.’