Philipp Sebastian Angermeyer writes:
Is there going to be a language log comment on the article "The English Wars" in the current issue of the New Yorker? I find it completely shocking to see that an author who purports to be writing about prescriptivism vs. descriptivism has so little understanding of the subject, and that the editor (presuming that such a position still exists at the New Yorker) would not catch the absurd claim that John Rickford is a prescriptivist.
The passage that shocked Philipp is the following, discussing the history of the American Heritage Dictionary:
Nowadays, everyone is moving to the center. The big fight produced some useful discussions of linguistic history, including Guy Deutscher’s “The Unfolding of Language” (2005). These books, by demonstrating how language changes all the time, brought about some concessions on the part of the prescriptivists, notably the makers of the A.H.D.’s later editions. First, the editors changed the makeup of their advisory panel. (The original hundred advisers were not dead white men, but most of them were white men, and the average age was sixty-eight.) Some definitions were made more relativist.
Most important is that the editors tried to pull descriptivists over to their side. In the most recent edition, the fifth, they have not one but two introductory essays explaining their book’s philosophy. One is by John R. Rickford, a distinguished professor of linguistics and humanities at Stanford. Rickford tells us that “language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.” That’s prescriptivism—no doubt about it. But turn the page and you get another essay, by the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. He tells us more or less the opposite. There are no rules, he declares. Or they’re there, but they’re just old wives’ tales—“bubbe-meises,” as he puts it, in Yiddish, presumably to show us what a regular fellow he is. And he attaches clear political meaning to this situation. People who insist on following supposed rules are effectively “derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies, and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.” So prescriptivists are witch-hunters, Red-baiters. For the editors of the A.H.D. to publish Pinker’s essay alongside Rickford’s is outright self-contradiction. For them to publish it at all is cowardice, in service of avoiding a charge of élitism.
This passage is indeed deeply confused. Its author, Joan Acocella, is the New Yorker's dance critic, and either the topic was not felt to be important enough to merit elementary editorial supervision, or there is no one at the magazine with any competence in the area involved.
Steve Pinker's essay wasn't exactly stuck in at the last minute by craven AHD editors — Pinker is the chair of the AHD's usage panel, for goodness' sake, and his piece describes the panel's approach to questions of usage. The previous usage panel chair was Geoff Nunberg, whose qualifications included a widely-cited 1983 article in the Atlantic Magazine, "The Decline of Grammar", which attacked such language mavens as John Simon and Edwin Newman as "shrill" and "dogmatic", and was attacked in turn by Mark Halpern in a 1997 Atlantic article "The War that Never Ends".
John Rickford's central point is that vernacular forms of language are not degraded or mistaken approximations to an ideal standard, but rather living systems with their own internal logic. For hundreds of years, linguists have described this internal logic of language in terms of laws or rules, even — and perhaps especially — when the patterns of usage are changing. Thus Rickford observes that
… the patterns of variation and change … are regular rather than random, governed by unconscious, language-internal rules and restrictions that can often be appreciated only when we assemble large numbers of examples and study these quantitatively. People tend to think of rules and grammar as covering only the small set of items about which we receive overt instruction [...]. But in fact we are unconscious of most of the language regularities and restrictions that we follow every day. [...] Language learning and use would be virtually impossible without systematic rules and restrictions; this generalization applies to all varieties of language, including vernaculars.
Many of the entries for which we have provided Our Living Language notes in this volume are similarly subject to systematic rules that their speakers follow regularly, if unconsciously, even though these words and constructions come from vernaculars that are commonly regarded as lacking rules.
There is no contradiction at all between this perspective and the one that leads to Steve Pinker's observation about what he calls bubbe-meises:
In the absence of publicized regulations like traffic laws, the elevation of shared knowledge to common knowledge can be unpredictable, even chaotic. Outlandish fashions, surprise bestsellers, dark-horse candidates, currency hyperinflations, and asset bubbles and crashes are all cases in which people behave according to the way they expect other people to expect other people to expect other people to behave. The craving for common knowledge can even lead to a false consensus, in which everyone is convinced that everyone believes something, and believes that everyone else believes that they believe it, but in fact no one actually believes it. [...]
The maddening paradox of false consensus has long afflicted lexicographers and grammarians. The problem goes by various names— folklore, fetishes, superstitions, bugaboos, and hobgoblins—but I call them bubbe meises, Yiddish for “grandmother’s tales,” in tribute to the late language columnist William Safire, who called himself a language maven, Yiddish for “expert.” A grammatical bubbe meise is a rule of usage that everyone obeys because they think everyone else thinks it should be obeyed, but that no one can justify because the rule does not, in fact, exist. The most notorious grammatical bubbe meise is the prohibition against split verbs, where an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like to, or an auxiliary like will, and a main verb. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made an error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was to boldly go where no man has gone before; it should have been to go boldly. Likewise, Dolly Parton should not have declared I will always love you, but I always will love you or I will love you always.
Steve's suggestion that "everyone obeys" superstitions like No Split Verbs is a bit misleading, as his own examples indicate. But his goal in this passage is to explain how belief in such false principles can become so widespread, not to deny that any genuine linguistic rules exist. He's published dozens of scientific articles about linguistic rules, and even a popular book "Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language".
Such rules — the rules that John Rickford writes about — are the emergent regularities of living language, including vernacular varieties of language. In contrast, Steve Pinker's "bubbe meises" (he doesn't use the word rule in describing them) are invented stipulations about allegedly proper usage, promulgated by explicit instruction. This is close to Friedrich Hayek's distinction between "rules which have by a process of selection been evolved", in what he calls a "grown order", and what he calls a "made order", governed by principles that are "thought of as having been deliberately constructed by somebody, or at least owing whatever perfection they possessed to such design". Rickford and Pinker don't disagree in any fundamental way about the nature of these two kinds of rules or principles, any more than Hayek disagreed with himself about his two kinds of social order.
As Hayek observed, this debate encompasses "all institutions of culture … [m]orals, religion and law, language and writing, money and the market". The New Yorker as an institution has traditionally been on the "made order" side of this debate in most areas, and especially so in matters of language. But that's no excuse for publishing such a confused and badly-informed review.
(Full disclosure: I'm a member of the American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel.)
[For discussions of other aspects of Acocella's article, see Jan Freeman, "Descriptivists as hypocrites (again)", Throw Grammar from the Train 5/8/2012; John McIntyre, "Cheap Shot", You Don't Say, 5/82012; and "Ignorant Blathering at the New Yorker", Language Hat 5/11/2012. For a historical and philosophical perspective on the 'scriptivisms, see Geoff Nunberg's Language Log post, "The politics of 'prescriptivism'", 11/20/2011. And for more of my own views on the matter, see e.g. "Amid this vague uncertainty, who walks safe?", 2/23/2007, or "Menand on linguistic morality", 10/22/2008. ]