Prescriptive and Descriptive Language Views– Understanding Language

I often tell my students and other language teachers that I hate grammar. “But how can you be an English teacher and hate grammar!” is often the reply. While it is true that I have to teach grammar concepts, and yes, even live by them, I simply don’t care much for them. Grammar (and by extension spelling) rules are confusing and difficult. Just ask any student of English. Most native speakers learn English intuitively, without memorizing the complicated rules, so they speak and write according to what ‘sounds correct’. Second language learners must struggle to understand countless rules and exceptions to rules.

The linguistic terms ‘prescriptive’ and ‘descriptive’ are used to describe two contrasting views of a language. In my latest video, I explain the difference. You can tell that I am more of a descriptivist, since I don’t like grammar. My approach to teaching English is to teach non-native speakers how to sound like native speakers, not necessarily follow all of the rules. Other language professionals, such as grammarians, are more prescriptionist in their views. They prefer to remind everyone how a language, like English, should be used. In reality, like most things, a balance is needed. A language must be looked from both sides. Check out my video and let me know what you think!

(click here for the YouTube video link)

Did you know? According to linguists that study this subject, most languages in the world are only spoken, not written. Out of the over 7,000 identified languages, it is estimated that 2/3 are spoken, but not written. While some of these languages may actually have a writing system or alphabet, it may not be used by the majority of the native speakers, due to tradition or illiteracy.

The Great Vowel Shift

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Great Vowel Shift was a historical event that occurred around the 15th century. The way vowels in English words were pronounced changed quite a bit, especially the way long vowels were pronounced. Linguists know this happened from a variety of sources, such as rhyming songs and poetry and the way words were spelled. Spelling is a big clue, even spelling mistakes, because often people make spelling errors that are phonetic, or according to the way words sound or are pronounced. We are not exactly sure the reason this happened, but there are many theories, including movement of the English people, political changes or even people copying speech impediments, or problems, of influential rulers. Whatever the reason, the result for us today in Modern English makes for some unusual spelling and pronunciation rules.

Change is nothing unusual in the history of the English language. For example, the ‘K’ sound was voiced in Old English, not silent, like it is today in Modern English. That is where the spelling of words such as knee, knife or knit with a ‘K’ came from. (Spelling a word with a silent letter is called an aphthong). While the disappearance of the ‘Kn’ sound is not a vowel sound that is part of The Great Vowel Shift, this dramatic change illustrates how pronunciation changes complicate the language.

Let’s look at some examples of vowel changes to better understand The Great Vowel Shift:  Home used to rhyme with gloom, ‘boiled’ used to be ‘byled’, ‘join’ was ‘gine’, and ‘work’ was pronounced ‘wark’. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic work of literature, Canterbury Tales, ‘oo’ words all rhymed with ‘food’. ‘Tough’ had a guttural ‘o’ sound that was pronounced just as we still spell it.

While some of the spellings have changed to reflect the modern pronunciation, not all of them have. Also, some pronunciations of vowel sounds were not consistent because of regional variations, and this makes it difficult to have pronunciation and spelling rules that do not contain exceptions. Even in Modern English, you will find regional variations of the pronunciation of vowels related to accents. For example in American English, there are different ways to pronounce words such as ‘roof’ (it can rhyme with ‘stuff’ or ‘booth’), ‘route’ (it can rhyme with ‘about’ or ‘boot’) and ‘water’ (it can rhyme with ‘rudder’ or ‘hotter’).