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Descriptivism

The descriptivist approach in linguistics is all about letting language be itself! It's a laid-back, descriptive approach that says "hey, language, do your thing!" instead of dictating how it should be used. So, forget about those grammar authorities in your life, we're here to celebrate language in all its natural, quirky, and ever-evolving glory.

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Descriptivism

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The descriptivist approach in linguistics is all about letting language be itself! It's a laid-back, descriptive approach that says "hey, language, do your thing!" instead of dictating how it should be used. So, forget about those grammar authorities in your life, we're here to celebrate language in all its natural, quirky, and ever-evolving glory.

What is the definition of descriptivism?

Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/ writers. It is a non-judgmental approach to analysing language usage as it is actually used, without imposing prescriptive norms or rules.

  • When taking a descriptivist approach, issues of correct or incorrect language are not considered.
  • Descriptivism is concerned with analysing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users.It is an approach used to analyse both Standard and Non-Standard forms of English.

The opposite of descriptivism is prescriptivism. Prescriptivism, unlike descriptivism, asserts that certain language rules matter, authorising the 'correctness' of certain words, phrases, grammar, and the 'incorrectness' of others.

A descriptivist is a linguist or language scholar who focuses on describing and analyzing the way language is actually used in different contexts, rather than prescribing rules for how language should be used. Prescriptivists focus on enforcing the pre-established grammar structures in their studies.

Descriptivism, a tick and an x on a brown background, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Prescriptivism is concerned with 'correct' and 'incorrect' ways to use language, unlike descriptivism.

Features of descriptivism

Here are the key things to remember about descriptivism:

Features of the Descriptivist Approach

Concerned with analysing the ways in which we use language in the real world/ daily life

Non-judgmental approach

Most frequently applied in academic linguistics to study language

Studies standard and non-standard forms of language

Evidence-based approach

What are some descriptivism examples?

Let's compare the use of two phrases, "If I were you" and "If I was you":

  • 'If I were you' is considered Standard English, and therefore grammatically correct from a prescriptivist perspective.

  • 'If I was you' is considered to be Non-Standard English, and therefore grammatically incorrect from a prescriptivist perspective. However, it is frequently used by English speakers in day-to-day language.

A descriptivist would take the position that neither phrase is incorrect, as they both function in a way other English speakers can comprehend. As long as language can be understood, descriptivism argues no use of language is wrong.

Remember: Descriptivism is concerned with real-world language!

Descriptivism: descriptivist philosophy

Today, the majority of academic linguists take a descriptivist approach.

The focus in linguistics is typically less on the rules of the English language, and more on the use of language in different contexts and among diverse communities.

  • Descriptivism is the preferred approach for analysing language, which makes it perfect for academic linguists who study languages around the world.

  • The analytical nature of descriptivism makes it a useful approach for analysing literature, as it allows for interpretation, unlike prescriptivism which evaluates language according to correctness.

Descriptivism, cartoon of a boy thinking, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Descriptivism allows us to interpret language according to different contexts.

Benefits of descriptivism

Descriptivism has particular benefits that make it the preferred approach:

  • It has destigmatised certain kinds of language.

  • In terms of non-standard speech varieties, descriptivism provides an analysis of language that is neither hierarchical nor critical, as prescriptivism tends to be.

  • It looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their use of language in an analytical and non-judgmental way, and can help to bridge the gap between social groups.

  • It offers a more accurate reflection of language use across the world than the prescriptivist approach. This is because it focuses on studying language as it is used in daily life.

  • It accounts for the ways languages evolve in different communities.

Shortfalls of descriptivism

There are areas in which descriptivism is not the preferred approach when observing language usage:

  • Consider those learning English for the first time. Prescriptivism might be the preferred approach as new learners would need to be aware of the rules of the language they are learning.

  • Descriptivism is a good approach for analysing language, but not necessarily for teaching language. In professional environments or when writing formally, for example, one would need to know the rules of the English language. It is important to be aware of when and where to use 'correct' grammar.

Linguistic descriptivism in the future

In the future, descriptivism may prove to be the more useful linguistic approach in mapping the evolution of language use around the world.

While prescriptivism can help us map the grammatical and structural rules of a language, descriptivists will be able to analyse how language evolves over time.

As our society continues to change and new forms of communication emerge, the descriptivist approach will help ensure that we are able to keep pace with these developments and document language as it actually exists. With its focus on inclusivity and respect for linguistic diversity, the descriptivist approach will remain an important tool for understanding and appreciating the complexity and richness of human language.

Descriptivism - Key takeaways

  • Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/ writers. It is a non-judgmental, evidence-based approach to analysing language use.

  • Descriptivism is concerned with analysing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users. A descriptivist is a linguist or language scholar who focuses on describing and analyzing the way language is actually used in different contexts, rather than prescribing rules for how language should be used.

  • The opposite of descriptivism is prescriptivism.

  • The descriptivist approach to observing language has helped to destigmatise certain non-standard forms of English.

  • The descriptivist approach accounts for the ways language evolves in different communities rather than writing language variation and changes off as incorrect.

Frequently Asked Questions about Descriptivism

Linguistic descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a non-judgemental, evidence-based approach to analysing language use.

A descriptivist attitude is one that sees all language varieties as useful and valuable in different situations, rather than viewing one language variety as superior to the others. 

Descriptivism in ethics refers to the belief that moral statements express moral judgements. Ethical descriptivists believe that moral statements are either true or false.

In the study of English, descriptivism is an approach to language that focuses on the everyday use of language, rather than seeing certain language varieties as superior or inferior to others. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

What is the aim of linguistic descriptivism?

What group of people is most likely to take a descriptivist approach?

In what field is descriptivism most likely to be used?

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