2014/2 Rules of engagement?

ENG30_02Here is the latest feature by a member of our project in the new issue of English Today. It is republished on this blog with permission from Cambridge University Press, which owns the copyright to this piece. The original is available at Cambridge Journals Online. To join the discussion, please respond on our website in the comments-box of the announcement of this feature, rather than by following the url in the article (which is there because we have to reproduce the article as it was published).

Rules of engagement? Usage and normativism: public discourse and critical language awareness


The third item in a series from the University of Leiden ‘Bridging the Unbridgeable’ project on prescriptivism

In English Today 30.1, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade introduced the Leiden University research project, ‘Bridging the Unbridgeable: Linguists, Prescriptivists and the General Public’, and gave an example of the kind of questions we ask ourselves. That example, about questions relating to the use of have went, was very specific. In this feature, we have some questions that are rather more general, and which have to do with the discourse on usage and normativism.

We aim to construct a mutually beneficial discussion involving the three groups named in the subtitle of our project. It is our experience so far that linguists especially are rather hard to engage, and it seems that this is a paradigmatic problem. The descriptive paradigm in linguistics is so strong that prescriptivism – its perceived opposite – has become almost a taboo subject. Prescriptivism seems to have acquired such a strong negative connotation that even a descriptive study of evaluative aspects of language is tainted by it. On the whole, too many linguists believe that prescriptivism does not require or even merit scientific inquiry. But this cannot be so.

Prescriptivism and usage must be valid subjects of linguistic study. This was already noted by Cameron (1995) in Verbal Hygiene, published 20 years ago: ‘When linguists dismiss certain phenomena as unworthy of investigation they are failing to live up to their own descriptive ideals. Silly or not, value judgements on language form part of every competent speaker’s linguistic repertoire’ (Cameron, 1995: x). Linguists should not shy away from being ‘critical’ in the sociological sense and from engaging with the public, with the practices of those whose language variety they are describing. And consequently, being specialists on language, linguists should make themselves heard, and explain the workings of language – including normative aspects – to the public. Historical linguists are especially suited to being engaged in this discussion, since they can place it in a much-needed historical and social context.

All this is a – perhaps somewhat long – introduction to the following questions, which we hope to find answers to.

  1. Who are engaged in public and academic discussions on usage and normativism in the Anglophone world, and who lead them? Academics? Lay linguists? Language professionals? Educators?
  2. Is there public critical language awareness when it comes to issues of usage and normativism?
  3. How can linguists or others raise or increase critical language awareness?
  4. Is there a role for linguists to engage in this discourse outside academia?

These are important questions, to which we only have partial and tentative answers. To start with the first question: as far as we can tell, linguists do not lead discussions on usage. This seems strange since they are supposed to be the experts on the subject. The question of critical language awareness is even more of a mystery to us. What linguists can do, and what some of them do, is teach critical language awareness to their students, hoping that those of them who become teachers will spread it to younger generations.

In recent years in the Netherlands, the issue of the relevance of scientific research to society has been pushed to the forefront by political and public debates on whether to increase or cut spending on research and education. Societal relevance is now a standard part of research assessment by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)1 and a recurring theme in the current strategic memorandum of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)2, which is responsible for the allocation of government research grants.

It appears that our universities in general, and faculties of humanities in particular, have become acutely aware of the fact that they have not always articulated their societal importance to the general public clearly enough. In a more general sense, this has also been true for linguists in the debates on usage, normativism or prescriptivism, and the standard language. The descriptive paradigm has led linguists to ignore these issues for too long. The participation of linguists is crucial at this point in time, as we risk losing touch with society – or we are perceived to be doing so, which is just as damaging – which makes us irrelevant as scientists who study a social practice such as language.

We pose these questions not merely to indicate the things we do not know, but to actually get some answers to them, or at least to start a discussion of them. So if you have anything to add to this discussion, please respond on our website at https://bridgingtheunbridgeable.com/english-today/.


1 https://www.knaw.nl/nl/thematisch/kwaliteit/kwaliteitsbeoordeling-en-valorisatie/shared/resources/actueel/publicaties/pdf/20091052.pdf

2 http://www.nwo.nl/over-nwo/voorlichting-en-communicatie/publicaties/nwo/strategienota—2011-2014-groeien-met-kennis.html

Cameron, D. 1995. Verbal Hygiene: The Politics of Language. London: Routledge.

Straaijer, Robin (2014) Rules of engagement? Usage and normativism: public discourse and critical language awareness. English Today, 30:2, 11–12. Cambridge University Press. (June 2014). doi:10.1017/S0266078414000066.