I applaud Mark for taking on the question of left- and right-wing linguistic moralism. It encourages me to add some snippets from the disorganized drawer of Thoughts I have on this topic, some of them from stuff I wrote but never published. I leave the insertion of transitions as an exercise for the reader.
In the first place, doesn't make sense to think of this question other than historically. The distinction between "prescriptivism" and "descriptivism" is a twentieth-century invention, and an unfortunate one, I think, since it implies that this is a coherent philosophical controversy with antique roots. In fact both terms are so vague and internally inconsistent that we'd be better off discarding them, and to impose those categories on the eighteenth-century grammarians, say, is gross presentism. So let me talk about "language criticism," both because it's closer to the mark, and because what linguists describe as "prescriptivism" in most of the Western languages is by-and-large just a stream of the critical tradition. (Language criticism, it has struck me, is the dream-work of culture.) And the politics of both have always been in flux.
That said, before the 1950's, writers rarely described positions on usage as "conservative" and "liberal," and then only as a narrowly metaphorical way of describing attitudes toward language change. It's true that has always been a strong conservative strain in a lot of language criticism, but it was generally aligned with the interests of social and cultural elites, not opposed to them, which makes it very different from the populist criticism of the modern cultural right.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, in fact, many writers on the left also found it entirely natural to take the language as a matter for critical concern. There's a line of radical language criticsm stretching back to Priestly and Cobbett — I think of Cobbett's Grammar of the English Language, "intended for the Use of Schools and of Young Persons in general; but more especially for the Use of Soldiers, Sailors, Apprentices, and Plough-boys." When Cobbett came to giving "specimens of false grammar," he chose extracts from the Prince Regent's address to Parliament, a letter of the Home Secretary Lord Castlereagh and a dispatch of the Duke of Wellington. After tearing apart the grammar of these examples, he appended caustic comments — "Do you understand what this great Statesman means? . .—. You can guess; but you can go little further"; "all is vulgar, all clumsy, all dull, all torpid inanity." And he ended by saying, "Thus it is that the mass of mankind have been imposed upon by big-sounding names."
So for Cobbett, the method of linguistic criticism was a tool for dispelling false consciousness, and as such this was an important element in a certain strain of Left universalism. The theme was continued through Dwight Macdonald, Harold Rosenberg, and Orwell — and the grammarians of the Third Republic, and Gramsci, for that matter — and in fact you can hear it even now in critiques of the language of political and corporate life and of sexist language, one of the few instances in recent years when genuinely critical questions about language have seemed to have a systematic public significance.
But from the 1960's until recently most of the important language critics in the Anglo-American tradition were political conservatives: William Safire, James J. Kirkpatrick, John Simon, Joseph Epstein, and William F. Buckley in this country and Roger Scruton, Kingsley Amis, and Enoch Powell in Britain. This association really began around the time of Webster's Third — Jacques Barzun called that dictionary "the longest political pamphlet ever put together by a party." By 1982, Newsweek could write of "a new conservatism, an outbreak of right-wing linguistic commentary in books, newspaper columns, and underground pamphlets. It's the Verbal Minority, with a message tuned to the times: what's good for Merriam-Webster is good for America." And shortly after that, Simon Jenkins made a similar observation about Britain: "[G]rammar is the fastest-rising topic in the Tory firmament, now almost on a par with hanging and dole fraud."
Not surprisingly, the politicization of grammar and usage has radically changed the significance of the issues. A few years ago the British conservative Roger Scruton describes the controversies over usage as a debate between
those prepared to accept that there ought to be authority and obedience in matters of grammar, and those who think that any such conception is arbitrary and tyrannical. The dispute is in no way trivial. It is as deep, and as difficult, as that (of which it is a special case) between the conservative and liberal in politics.
This is a weirdly ahistorical way of formulating these issues. "Obedience" is a new word in these discussions, and so for that matter is "authority" as Scruton is using it — not the way you'd talk about the authority of the OED, but the way you'd talk about the authority of a headmaster. And in the course of things the subject was inevitably trivialized. As John Simon puts it: "There is, I believe, a morality of language: an obligation to preserve and nurture the niceties, the fine distinctions, that have been handed down to us." And in the editor's introduction to the first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which was originally conceived as a direct response to the "permissiveness" of Webster's Third, William Morris wrote that the dictionary's editors "approached their task imbued with a deep sense of responsibility as custodians of traditions in language."
How very untraditional this all is! Certainly H. W. Fowler felt no obligation to "preserve and nurture the niceties" of past ages. On the contrary, he wrote: "Is it absurdly optimistic to suppose that what the stream of language strands as it flows along consists mainly of what can be done without?" For that matter, Fowler wouldn't have recognized the phrase "traditional grammar," either. That expression only arose in the period after the Second World War, around the same time that people started applying traditional to things like houses, furniture, weddings, families, and values. In each case the notion of the "traditional" was a direct response to the word modern and all it implied. To describe furniture styles or values as "traditional" is to suggest that they were generally and uncritically accepted before the modern began to subvert them — it turns them into things like ballads or pumpkin pie recipes, which have no known origin but have simply been handed down from one generation to the next. (Which is increasingly the status of the rules that people cling to most obdurately.)
Some of this is just misplaced nostalgia for a time when "grammar" was regarded as a God-given instrument for instilling schoolchildren with a sense of moral discipline. In recent decades, in fact, there has been a tendency to blame the deemphasis of grammar in the schools for an astonishing range of social evils, particularly in the UK. Here's the Conservative MP Norman Tebbit, for example:
If you allow standards to slip to the stage where good English is no better than bad English, people turn up filthy at school . . . all these things tend to cause people to have no standards at all, and once you lose standards there's no imperative to stay out of crime.
It's true that many nineteenth-century educators saw the study of grammar as an ideal instrument for achieving social control; as Lindley Murray wrote, it provided the student with "an employment calculated to exclude those frivolous pursuits, and that love of ease and sensual pleasure, which enfeeble and corrupt the minds of many inconsiderate youth, and render them useless to society." But earlier writers rarely confused the disciplinary benefits of grammar instruction with the critical justification of language values. The study of grammar might provide a excellent occasion for the inculcation of discipline, mental or otherwise, but that wasn't its reason for being. Nor did nineteenth-century writers interpret these questions as having an essentially political significance — there was no such thing as a Tory view of usage. That would have been self-defeating. After all, once you appropriate a concern for standards of usage as the property of one party, you can no longer regard them as the ground rules for our common conversation about politics and everything else. If only conservatives cared about speaking properly — or beyond that, if speaking properly itself were to become a badge of conservative views — then it would come down to little more than another tic of partisan speech, like referring to the "Democrat party."
In fact I sometimes think we're getting close to that, when I see critics appealing defiantly to the "the lonely and diminishing minority" who care about usage. (Though actually solicitude for the state of the language is like love of country: everybody believes he has good deal more of it than most other people, which is a good thing for the Lynn Trusses of this world.)
Actually my sense is that the whole business of language criticism has degenerated since then, particularly on the right. (I mean criticism as such, not just usage advice.) With a few exceptions, serious younger conservatives haven't made any effort to hold high this pennant — some have told me that they don't consider it an important cultural enterprise. It's telling that Mark finds no one better than to personify the conservative attitude on language than Mark Halpern, an obscure character who dilates in a webzine on things like the origin of language or the End of Linguistics armed with nothing but the sense God gave him. When you read what he has to say, or for that matter any of gazillions of other grammar enthusiasts who pullulate on the web, you're struck by how thoroughly this whole critical discourse has come detached from the larger enterprise of literary culture that gave it life. Buckley, thou shoulds't be living at this hour!
When you think about it, in fact, most of the best critics writing about language now in major public venues are actually rather liberal-minded in their attitudes about language — I think of Jan Freeman at the Boston Globe, John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun, Robert Lane Greene and the other Johnsonians at the Economist, not to mention various of our own Language Loggers and a number of others. But this stuff just doesn't have same cultural oompahpah that it used to. As I noted in a piece not long ago in the New York Times Book Review recalling the brouhaha that erupted exactly fifty years ago over of the publication of Webster's Third: "The furor over Webster’s Third also marked the end of an era. It's a safe bet that no new dictionary will ever incite a similar uproar, whatever it contains."
Anyway, it's silly to suppose that a concern over usage is the exclusive property of the right. It isn't as if writers for The American Prospect and The Nation take fewer pains about the way they use the language than writers for Commentary or National Review — for one thing, they probably all had the same English teachers. And there are plenty of people of all political persuasions who have a passing concern about usage but don't find the diatribes of the right-wing critics particularly compelling (or the ones of the linguists, either, in my experience) — people who are genuinely attached to the distinction between disinterested and uninterested, but who are uncomfortable about using words like "permissiveness" and "the erosion of standards," and who are affronted by the condescending derision of minority dialects. As Lionel Trilling once put it, "I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language." But it's difficult to make a case for language criticism nowadays without irony — you wind up saying things like, "Well, I personally don't use disinterested to mean "uninterested," and I'm sorry that this one is going by the boards, since at a certain point I can't use disinterested with any assurance that most of my audience will get what I mean, but I for sure don't think it signals the end of civilization as we know it. What's for lunch?"
Frankly, I'm always saying that sort of thing myself. I'm not sure where that leaves me, but I don't think it's a a bad thing. As Fowler teaches us, good language criticism should always be ironic. And that's supposed to be what we liberals are best at.