© 2011 Lance. All rights reserved.

A Perfectly Cromulent Word (Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Linguistics)

A while back on this site, I got into a discussion with someone about the word “deplane”. The discussion really boiled down to an argument over whether the primary function of the dictionary should be prescriptive (i.e., telling people what words are included in a language) or descriptive (i.e., describing language as it is spoken). As I recall, my interlocutor, Erik, was arguing for a prescriptive approach — “deplane” is not a real word, it isn’t really needed (why not say “exit” or “disembark”?) and it should be avoided. I held a different view — people say “deplane” and people know what it means, so it’s a word and that’s fine.

I have been meaning to try to reopen that discussion, though that is not the purpose of this post. I ran across an article last night about the broader prescriptive/descriptive debate, and in thinking about it this morning I thought of a reason why our views on the topic might be so divergent. (After all, linguistics is both prescriptive and descriptive, so any argument takes place between two points on a sliding scale.) Erik is an American living in Spain and, if I’m not mistaken, has learned Spanish as an adult. If that’s right, he has probably depended on people and other resources to be prescriptive about how Spanish is spoken. Even though our discussion was about an English (non)word, Erik’s experiences probably gave him an appreciation for the real world value of prescription. (I, on the other hand, studied enough Latin and German in high school and college, respectively, to get my required language credits and not a semester more and I am not particularly concerned with the comfort of ESL students.) Erik made some comments in our discussion that should have cued me to this context.

I still think I’m right on the broader point — I do not see what harm would be avoided even if one could stop people from saying “deplane” — and I still find the question fascinating. But I should have established the parameters before launching into debate on the topic. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way more than once, and you would think I would keep it in mind: don’t dive into a clash over the relative merits of different ways to do things without first asking “for what purpose?”. In this case, I should have started by filling in the blank in “is prescription better or worse than description for accomplishing __________”. It probably would have been helpful to agree (as I think most reasonable people would) that prescription is generally better for educating non-native, non-fluent speakers before moving on to the more interesting questions.

(The title of the post comes from the Simpsons. The Springfield town motto is “A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.” In one episode (which features the quietly creepy Donald Sutherland), one school teacher tells another that she never heard the word “embiggen” before moving to Springfield. The other teacher says “I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.”)

I question the educational value of this assembly.

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