Monday, 20 May 2013

A Life in Balance 11: Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

How do you say 'six hundred' Polish? Sześćset, yes - but how do you pronounce that? Most Poles would pronounce it 'Szejset' [SHAYset], when the correct answer is 'sześć-set' ['SHESHCHset'].

Correct answer says who? Prescriptivists, that's who. The folks who will tell you that 'to boldly go where no man has gone before' is wrong because it's a split infinitive, and that 'If I were a rich man' is correct because 'were' is the subjunctive form to the verb 'to be', while you can't say 'Me and John went to the shop' because 'me' is accusative and not nominative. (You can't say 'me went to the shop' so why say 'me and John went to the shop'?) 

A different point of view is taken by Descriptivists. They will say that if the overwhelming balance of Poles go around saying 'szejset', then that is what '600' is. People insisting otherwise are Canutes (incidentally King Canute's mum was daughter of Polish king, Mieszko I), battling spuriously against a rising tide of contemporary usage, and languages are living things after all. Descriptivists will happily accept txtspk ('C U L8R' = 'see you later') as part of the vernacular.

So - where to set the slider between 'thus it is and only thus' and 'anything goes'? This is where I'd put it...

If we go deeper, we will see that a tendency to the prescriptivist shows a leaning towards conservatism - trying to preserve the beauty and order of things as they are, red telephone boxes, 1960s architecture, Ikarus buses, use of liturgical Latin - while the descriptivists are happier with change, indeed want to press on with a world that's continually changing. If prescriptivists are inflexible stick-in-the-muds, descriptivists will bend with the wind blowing from wherever. See this excellent take on the debate in the Economist's Johnson blog.

Sześćset is difficult to say, especially after that number of millilitres of red wine. Szejset is far easier. And so linguistic evolution - or linguistic erosion - is continually taking place. But then if you accept 'szejset' as 600, what's its genitive if not sześciuset?

When I was a small boy, driving in the car with my father, I'd ask him 'Gdzie jedziemy?' (Where are we going?) He'd answer 'W aucie' ('in the car'). What I should have asked him is 'Dokąd jedziemy?' ('Whither are we going?') Now, the word 'whither' has disappeared from common English usage, and I must report that dokąd is heading that way too. (To see how words or phrases come and go over the centuries in several languages - sadly though not Polish yet, have a look at Google's Ngram viewer.) And here, things like 'Ms' for 'Miss'/'Mrs' or the singular 'they' are changes that I'm happy to go along with.

Obviously neologisms must follow human progress, otherwise we'll be unable to give names to new inventions. Note how the Polish for bicycle is 'rower' [from the British manufacturer 'Rover'] rather than the more Latin-derived terms 'welocyped' or 'bicykl'; this would have been determined by popular usage rather than by a committee of linguistic guardians like the Rada Języka Polskiego

Like any writer and editor, I take professional pride in writing correctly and in being able to correct mistakes made by others. I make my living from having that slight edge over the majority of the English-speaking world in being able to spot a verb of incomplete predication being incorrectly used (with an adverb rather than with a adjective) or knowing how to use apostrophes correctly.

But - a question for Poles - when does one finally accept FabRYka over FABryka or JAPko over JABŁko?

This is a tricky one, because neither 'anything goes' descriptivists nor fussy stickler prescriptivists are right; you've got to move with the times, but you must maintain certain basic rules without which all descends into chaos. There will always be those who look to set rules, by which all should abide. These rules can be useful, guiding us away from the dangers of Babel and linguistic anarchy; but they can also be restrictive, restraining genuine creativity. Once again, I refer you to another excellent Johnson blog post from the Economist - Shakespeare (whom descriptivists hold up as one of their own) was a veritable motor of neologisms.
Shakespeare ... self-consciously played with the language. He was so good at it that many of his innovations stayed in the language, whereas they would have struck his audience as either new and fresh, or odd, in his day.
The key word here is 'consciously'. You've gotta be, as reggae duo, the Jolly Brothers, observed, be a conscious man (or indeed woman) when toying with language. Explore the boundaries, play with the new, but do so with awareness. Don't break linguistic rules unless you are aware of what you're doing - and do so with good, creative, reason. If what you write, what you say, catches on, it becomes a meme, it spreads, it becomes the new rule. 'The old order changeth, yielding place to new'.

 I'd set the slider somewhere in the middle, but with a small bias towards prescriptivism; it is, after all, my bread and butter.

This time last year:

This time four years ago:
Why Poland can no longer afford to keep the grosz


Marcin said...

Hi Mike,

That's not bothering if to say "sześćset" or "szejset". Much more confusing is to misspell in a sentence: "Yesterday, with a great pleasure, I lied on a beach." v. "Yesterday, with a great pleasure, I lied on a b***ch.: :)

Well, I'm to the most irritated, when I hear in the Polish television how most of readers and reporters pronounce a name "Connecticut". As they say ko-nne-kti-ket instead of ka-ne-ti-ket.

All the very best.

DC said...

This brings out my conservative side. I would have said that I pulled to the right, but the Prescriptivists are to the left on your slider. I can roll with the change, and often find it fascinating, but only when it makes some sort of contribution to the language. So much of it in English is just laziness or sloppiness. The one that sticks in my craw is the gradual erosion of the word "literally" for which there isn't really a good alternate and it's even showing up in dictionaries:


Michael Dembinski said...


"The striker missed the goal by literally a million miles!" - which would have put the ball halfway to Mars.

Left/right: Good point - I'll change the slider round the other way :)

@ Marcin

I get the same feeling when I hear the announcer on the Warsaw Metro announcing "the next station - Plutz VEEL-sohn-uh!"

Marcin said...


It's not like that, cos some rules say, that it's possible to make Polish of some of the foreign proper names. Imagine to hear about wash-ton Aleja (Eng. avenue) on the Varsovian Praga, instead of the Aleja va-shing-to-na (i.e. Washington Avenue, Washington's Avenue, Avenue of Washington Washingtonian Avenue, ...?????? - hard to properly translate)? Some English speakers might have a trouble right here, cos there governs a something called a declination - mostly non-existent in English. May you vividly explain it to most of English language native speakers?