Language Is Not as It Seems

Language is something all people have access to, a fundamental part of human existence. Whether spoken or signed it is deeply ingrained in the cultures of each individual group of speakers. It is no surprise then that so many people feel that they have the authority to speak on language and how it functions without actually having any formal experience with linguistics, the academic and professional field that is dedicated to the study of how language functions in relation to the human mind.

In fact, so many people feel entitled to speak on the topic of language that there are official committees dedicated to deciding what is “correct” in a particular language and what is not, and very rarely do these committees actually have a linguist involved in their discussions and rulings. Unfortunately for them, language is much more complex than it seems at a first glance, and attempting to preserve it as some language purists do, or to impose a set of standardized rules, is not possible. Nothing changes.

The things that are taught in the first weeks of an introductory linguistics course challenge almost everything people have been taught about language for their entire lives: that no language is inherently better, more efficient, or easier than another; that there is no wrong way to speak, as long as it is natural for the speaker; that language is not a tool for communication, because if it were, it would be a lot clearer; and that spelling conventions are completely arbitrary and hold no bearing on how well a person understands a language. With this as a basis it can be extremely frustrating when confronting completely backwards arguments about language and how people base their judgments of others on some arbitrary, imaginary hierarchy of pseudo-linguistic values.

What people colloquially refer to as “grammar Nazis,” which is an extremely offensive term for a number of reasons, are called “prescriptivists” in the linguistic vernacular. Prescriptivists are people who, rather than observing how language functions naturally and accepting it for what it is, attempt to devise and enforce rules for how to “better” a language. However, these rules are completely unfounded and are almost never based on any linguistically relevant facts at all.

For example, in English it is considered improper to end a sentence with a preposition. However, there are many times when this is impossible, as there are many prepositional phrases in English that are quite difficult to separate using the traditional method. This is only one example of how arbitrary and impractical prescriptive language rules are. Language is not meant to be held to outside rules, yet it seems as if no one outside the linguistic field even acknowledges that language naturally follows its own standards. That is how people are able to produce sentences that make sense in the first place, or even put together the correct sequences of sounds to make meaningful words.

Many people base their judgments of the legitimacy of language on these language rules, and also, ironically, on dictionaries. Dictionaries are compiled by linguists who observe the language and take note of how words’ meanings have changed over time. They create new entries for new words that enter popular usage but they are not, as is believed by many, compilations of all the acceptable words of a language.

Because language is so fundamentally human it is understandable that everyone feels the need to discuss it, but there should always be an awareness of prescriptivism among non-linguists. Without this awareness, discussions of language can turn into discussions of racism, classism, or sexism based on beliefs that each individual holds due to the way language is taught in schools, which is to only be acceptable in one form. Language is not subject to the rules in grammar books.

Language truly is not how it seems, because it is much more complex than anyone ever imagined. Even though there are linguists all around the world studying language there are still thousands of people who have no idea what they are talking about, who spout unfounded nonsense about how they believe language should be.

Opinion by Robin Syrenne


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