Linguistic Essentialism or A Language for the People?

In the world of literary editing, there is a war going on. The war is between the linguistic essentialism of the traditionalists who believe language is set and rules are meant to be followed, and the more progressive (and practically realistic) linguists who recognize the plasticity of language and the necessity for incorporating new usages to keep written language contemporary. The battle between these two perspectives is pervasive beyond just the literary establishment. We are taught in school which words to use, where in a sentence they should appear and the appropriate punctuation for every possible iteration. While there is surely a need for children to learn the traditional rules of the English language, are we limiting their creativity by being so forceful with our edicts? Further still, we hear constant editorials about inappropriate quotation marks in the supermarket, or a “wrong” pronunciation on a news cast. At what point did language stop moving forward? Who decides that traditional rules are right and modern usage is wrong?

The academic tradition of linguistic essentialism is perhaps best exemplified in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This oft-taught tome is full of strict rules for when to use a semi-colon and when NOT to. There is no room for negotiation. Reading Strunk and White one is left feeling as though no written language is ever polished carefully enough. It leaves one afraid to write a single word. And yet, as Strunk and White continue to be taught, the English language continues to evolve. More than that, individuals continue to experiment with what is “right” in the best interest of communication over prescriptivism.

At the other end of the academic linguistic spectrum are the editors who recognize that language has a purpose beyond the minutia of punctuation and sentence structure. Language is a living entity—as it is spoken it changes, and this change reflects the culture in which it lives. To strip the written word of its idiosyncrasies, its colloquial accents, is to sterilize communication in real and detrimental ways. If writers had all followed Strunk and White, we wouldn’t have the invented words that give illustrative names to important elements of experience. For example, had Shakespeare followed the rules, we wouldn’t have words like eyeball, obscene, hot-blooded, epileptic or alligator, to name only a very few.

For the linguistic progressives, language is a tool, not an untouchable gem on a shelf somewhere. Language belongs, first and foremost, to the people who speak it. For them, it is the job of the academic to adapt to the spoken word, not the other way around. Surely, there must always be a level of compromise between the two—a place where the structure of language persists to facilitate readability and to prevent misunderstanding while allowing for variation and interpretation. In short, academics must remember that language is not owned by academia.

If the prescriptivists have their way, written language will become further and further removed from spoken language. As the years go on, only the most highly educated, the elite and privileged, will be able to spend the requisite time in school to learn how to write “correctly.” Eventually, this will lead to an intellectual caste system in which academic writing becomes first difficult and later unintelligible to the common person. It does seem as though we could learn a thing or two from history on this point.

References and Resources:

Language Log

The Elements of Style

No Sweat Shakespeare: Shakespeare’s Words