In a comment on Ben Zimmer's post about two linguists being among this year's MacArthur "genius" grant winners (one of those going to my UC San Diego colleague Carol Padden), a reader identifying themselves as "Pflaumbaum" writes:
Off topic, but I wonder if any of the profs will comment on Emma Thompson's prescriptivist rant:
Apparently "ain't", "like" and "innit" make you sound stupid, and we need to reinvest in the idea of, um, as it were, articulacy, as a form of human freedom and power.
Well, at least Pflaumbaum warned us that it was off topic. Anyway, go ahead and follow the link to read the story about Emma Thompson. It's very, very short. I'll be here waiting, below the fold.
It may surprise Pflaumbaum (and perhaps other readers as well) to find that I am not in the least bit disturbed or troubled by Thompson's "rant". It seems perfectly reasonable to me. Here's what I hear Thompson saying:
- that certain elements of teenage speech bother her (that it "drives [her] insane", she says, which is perhaps a little over the top but not an uncommon use of hyperbole in these sorts of circumstances),
- that she is probably not alone in her opinion, at least among folks of a certain age and with a certain status (and I'm inclined to trust her on that one, given her age and status),
- that talking with your young friends is not the same as talking with people of a certain age and with a certain status (this is just self-evidently true),
- that teenagers should consider the following: "There is the necessity to have two languages – one that you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity. Or you're going to sound like a knob".
OK, the "knob" part is again a bit hyperbolic — but crucially, she says "you're going to sound like a knob", not "you're going to be a knob". If there's any doubt of the distinction I'm making here, consider this quote from Thompson: "it makes you sound stupid and you're not stupid". Clearly, what Thompson's saying here is that there are social implications to the choices we make when we speak, and that we're all well-served to consider those implications — even though they don't match up with reality. This is descriptivism, pure and simple, and not a "prescriptivist rant" at all.
(Note that I did file this under "Prescriptivist Poppycock", and I believe that's still appropriate.)