Normative Linguistics

Normative Linguistics

Workshop proposal ISLE 1, 811 October 2008 (Freiburg, Germany)
Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (University of Leiden)


In 1998, Larrie Bauer and Peter Trudgill published a collection of short papers in a volume called  Language Myths. The aim of the book was to let linguists, i.e. rather than journalists (Bryson), editors (McCrum), poets or psychologists (Pinker), “inform the general public about language” (1998:xv) by tackling a number of popular linguistic notions, or “myths”, such as that “the meaning of words should not be allowed to vary or change” (dealt with by Trudgill), that “the media are ruining English” (Aitchison), that “some languages have no grammar” (Bauer) and that “America is ruining the English language” (Algeo). The idea behind this collection is that linguists are “very much aware that ordinary people have some well-established ideas about language”, and that these ideas are “part of our culture” (1998:xvi). What the book does not tackle is the question of the origin of such ideas, or, indeed, their persistence. In a recent paper, González-Díaz (2007) has shown that three of the four myths listed here still formed the object of concern by people writing letters to the editor of the Guardian and the Times between 1999 and 2007 the fourth concern she identified was the alleged influence of the language of the Internet, which was perhaps not as salient at the time Language Myths was being written.
Milroy and Milroy (1985:13) note that there is “apparently a yawning gap between what linguists profess to think about language and what ordinary people assume in their daily use and observation of language”, and they continue that “public statements about language … almost never show explicit understanding of the distinction between system and use”. Beal (forthc.) shows an increase in prescriptive concerns in early 21st-century Britain, which she attributes to a growth of the service sector, the current culture of “self-improvement”, a “general backlash against the ‘permissive’ and egalitarian 1960’s”, the influence of post-feminism and a “fear of the underclass”. Resorting to prescriptivism (“how to get rid of your accent”) is popularly felt to offer a solution to the problem. But even linguists themselves are not free from ignorance of the linguistic matters they are writing about, particularly when it comes down to normative linguistics. This has led to prejudice and misconception: when dealing with normative grammarians and their works, for instance, they frequently fail to study them in the context in which they lived and worked. Aitchison (1981:2324; see also subsequent editions), for instance, appears to assume that Lowth’s grammar (1762) had been inspired by “his own high status” as a bishop (Lowth first became a bishop in 1766), while Biber et al. (1998:2122) claim that “unlike lexicography, grammar does not have a long tradition of empirical study”, thus ignoring the work of grammarians like White (1761), Lowth (1762), Ward (1765), Baker (1770) and Fogg (1792/6) (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2006). Already in 1974 Pullum asserted that “Lowth is more mentioned than read” (1974:63), which more recently has been shown to be the case for other eighteenth-century grammarians, such as Priestley, too (Hodson 2006).
Bauer and Trudgill (1998:xviii) make a plea for a “dispassionate and objective” approach to language, and the opening sentence of Milroy and Milroy (1985:1) similarly promises a “dispassionate” approach to its subject. As in any branch of linguistics, this is the approach taken in Normative Linguistics, and like other branches of linguistics Normative Linguistics deserves its place on the agenda of the first ISLE conference. As such it will aim to understand the nature of prescriptivism in English (cf. Kibbee and Craig 2007), and the current interest prescriptivism is undergoing both among the general public and among scholars in the field; it will help explain the vicious nature of the controversy between Trudgill and Honey upon the publication of Honey’s Language is Power. The Story of Standard English and its Enemies (1997) (see Trudgill’s review of 1998 and Honey’s rejoinder in 2000); it will help understand the popularity of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926), both in its first year, with over 60,000 copies sold and today with a third edition by Burchfield (1996; repr. 2004); as well as the recent popularity of Lynne Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves (2003), which “has sold more than three million copies worldwide” (blurb in first trade paperback printing, 2006) an also the complete lack of interest in the publication of the Dutch adaptation of the book; and, though hardly by way of a final topic of interest, the alleged and actual influence of normative grammars, since their rise and popularity in the eighteenth century, on actual usage.


If you wish to take part in this workshop, please contact Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (

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