Well Spoken: A Look at Prescriptivism
“… and they’re so articulate!”

“When you last eat? Call you wheaties, ya lookin like a stalk a’wheat, gotdamnit.”

Social context may inform you that the line above is ‘improper.’ This is intolerable supremacist thinking. The success of human communication relies on a message being received as intended. If the message is received as intended, then the purpose of the message has been fulfilled. That’s it. Prescriptivism is the word which describes this supremacist thinking. Prescriptivists operate with the understanding that there are rules that prescribe how language should be used. When those rules are broken, it’s considered an error.

In many of our upbringings, we are rigidly taught the rules of our first languages, and this serves purpose – we live in a social context in which there is a high value placed on manner of speech. This is so bizarre. We are creatures which produce guttural noises from an orifice on our faces. Contextualizing ourselves among the other creatures on this planet, it’s pretty insane that we’ve established any kind of complex communication scheme using patterns of noise and symbols. Multiply that by over 6,500 languages used today, and it’s a wonder any of us are able to understand anything at all.

It’s uncomfortable at the least to witness someone berate another over their communication style. It’s another level of insult to experience when it happens with an identity-based power dynamic to consider. Because of what the European mythology calls ‘colonization,’ prescriptivism is standard in the provision of language in education. Having a socially-agreed upon ‘normal usage’ of any particular widespread language is stupid. Forcing one group to adopt the form of communication of another in abandonment of their own natural form is linguicide, a functional aspect of ethnocide (the deliberate and systematic destruction of the culture of an ethnic group).

For language preservation, prescriptivism makes some sense. Prescriptivism makes some sense to encourage empathy in conversation. For the languages spread throughout the African diaspora through linguicide, it serves no purpose to place a value on one form over another. My California mountain drawl carries no importance or value over Wasiu’s dialect in English, and his carries no importance or value over Freda’s Brooklyn accent. However a group sounds when they speak a language is how that language evolved to be. In this sense, every dialect and accent of every language spoken by any group is a valid, equal form.

Don’t worry about your accent or dialect. You get it from your ancestors and languages long lost to us. Focus on communicating with empathy and the skill in your language performance will come as necessary for your journey. Supremacist thinking infects how many interpret language performance value. Prescriptive standards tend to cover not just what is permitted by rules of language, but frequently what is favored by a particular group. These standards are not limited to grammar, but rather can extend to elements like spelling and semantics (all of which are, sans supremacist thinking, components of style). For example, a prescriptivist might tell you that a sentence beginning after a colon must start with a capital letter, or that the word ‘like’ should not be used as a subordinating conjunction.

You may have gotten through the sentence at the beginning of this article and thought that there was nothing wrong with it. Maybe there weren’t any real errors, simply style choices that you wouldn’t have made. Maybe you REALLY didn’t like it, but you know that sometimes people choose to write that way – as long as the message is received, you can deal. If this is you, then you are a descriptivist and well equipped to couple language use with empathy.

Descriptive linguistics is defined by the idea that a language is what people do with it. One begins by studying and listening to native speakers of a language. The innate human quality that most share is the ability to learn and understand patterns. After studying the patterns in the language, one can posit those patterns as guesses about the principles of a language. If native speakers rarely break those patterns, then the posited guess is more likely to be an accurate representation of the language. We’re into standard science now. Those guesses are hypotheses, and when they are thoroughly supported by evidence, they can be accepted as ‘the correct form’ of a language.[1]

‘Conditions of correctness’ are different than the prescriptivism we’ve come to understand. For example, ‘Lanbo ci rago’ is how one would say ‘Lanbo ate a ram.’ The same phrase in Hausa also means ‘Lanbo eats a ram’ Though the tenses of the action are different, the conditions of correctness remain the same. Now, if adapted to a Northern California dialect of African American Vernacular English (AAVE, or ’ebonics’) the conditions of correctness when it comes to action tense are very similar.

    “What Lanbo gon do tonight?”

    “He eatin.”


    “What wuh Lanbo doin?”

    “He eatin…”


    “Why ain’t Lanbo out w/ us?”

    “He eatin. Shut up, Drake.”

Regardless of the action tense, the conditions of correctness in the response remain the same. Perhaps descendants of the stolen Africans with Hausa ancestors inherited that condition of correctness and applied it from Hausa to English.

The main difference between a correctness condition and a prescriptive rule is that a rule is (duh) regulatory. A correctness condition, on the other hand, is constitutive. I like to think about it in terms of photography: If snap a photo of DeMarcus Cousins out of focus, then I’ve made an error. I’ve broken a prescriptive rule that governs professional photography. On the other hand, if I snap a photo with DeMarcus Cousins still out of focus while the ball is in focus, that’s not an error. It’s simply a photo of the ball and not of the player.

A descriptivist would look at the situation and conclude that photography is defined by how you hold the camera body, which lens you attach, how you use color, how you understand and use aperture and shutter speed, your ability to track the action, your ability to sense the moment, your intended subject, and the composition of the frame. A prescriptivist has a personal and inherited understanding of what makes a quality photograph and applies that to photography as a rule.

The issue with prescriptivism is that it’s violent. Let the good ol’ Biblical Book of Judges illustrate:

“4…Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.

(Jeptheth got his squad together from Gilead and bodied up Ephraim and his crew. Gilead squad was salty over feeling discluded and whatnot, so they peppered the Ephraimites).

“5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

(Gilead squad posted up on the mountain pass so none of the Ephraim crew could run off. When an Ephraimite tried to get all sly and ask for passage, the Gil squad got all quizzical).

“6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

    (“Yeah… so, say Shibboleth my dude.”

        “Sibboleth my dude.”

The Gil squad was dead with laughter. Forty-two thousand of them Ephraimites couldn’t pronounce the word right and they got killedt for it. What a trip.)

    –Bible KJV, Judges, 12 4-6

The Ephraimites ran into a problem because the ‘sh’ phoneme (a phoneme is a singular sound your mouth is capable of pronouncing in your spoken languages) didn’t exist in their language, so most of them couldn’t pronounce the word correctly. This is a pattern carried through history. Have you ever felt reduced because of the beautiful accent you speak with? We’ll call those ‘sibboleth moments.’

I’ve had ‘sibboleth moments’ in all sorts of dynamics. Some situations, like teaching my primary language or explaining some etymology to a friend, are empowering for both members of the conversation. Others, like being harshly corrected by a person speaking my secondary language or a different dialect, were very harmful. These ‘sibboleth moments’ translate directly to economic violence and limiting community growth, and some experiences compounded by an ostracized communication style because of a disability.

The baseline purpose of using a language is to communicate. Language is a tool for a task. If the communication is effective, the tool has been used successfully. It relies on another factor – the listener. If the communication is understood, but refused because the listener prefers another form, well – you’re dealing with a prescriptivist. Note that asking for clarity is not a form of prescriptivism!

In the languages spread across the world through imperial insistence, descriptivism is the natural course of growth. The key to navigating so many different evolutions of the same language is empathy. Consider your partner in conversation and their sensitivities. The best way to do that is to take an internal attitude of appreciation of the time they are spending trying to communicate with you. If they are performing a secondary language to communicate with you, understand the effort and take joy from their ability.

Rules are important in language, but as history has shown us, language will be fine. “Sticking to the rules” doesn’t save a language from change but it may deny a person their humanity in their efforts to communicate. Don’t let yourself create a sibboleth moment for someone else. Let’s engage. Are you a descriptivist or a prescriptivist? Do you have any sibboleth moments you’d like to share?

Works Referenced:

  1. Prescriptivism and Descriptivism, English Language & Usage Blog, Stack Exchange, October 2015http://english.blogoverflow.com/2012/10/prescriptivism-and-descriptivism/

  2. King James Bible

Kimani Okearah
Kimani is digital griote in the African diaspora. A visual storyteller and African authenticity advocate, he strives to represent an appreciation for the depth of diversity in Global Black identity in his art and writing.
Kimani Okearah on EmailKimani Okearah on FacebookKimani Okearah on Twitter

Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "Well Spoken: A Look at Prescriptivism"

Notify of
Clementine Burnley

Myriad shibboleth moments. Too many to tell here and I think some violence done to others along the way. My take away from this is to practice empathy and notice intention in communication.In the end the dilemma is always what to do with people who are violent because it pays.

Lena Acolatse

very well written Kimani, this piece struck several different chords with me! It’s sometimes amusing and a bit stupid how we allow our perceptions of other peoples accents or language to define who we think they are :/

© 2017 Ezibota.