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Descriptivism

Descriptivism

The descriptivist approach in linguistics is all about letting language be itself! It's a laid-back, descriptive approach that says "hey, language, do your thing!" instead of dictating how it should be used. So, forget about those grammar authorities in your life, we're here to celebrate language in all its natural, quirky, and ever-evolving glory.

What is the definition of descriptivism?

Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/ writers. It is a non-judgmental approach to analysing language usage as it is actually used, without imposing prescriptive norms or rules.

  • When taking a descriptivist approach, issues of correct or incorrect language are not considered.
  • Descriptivism is concerned with analysing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users. It is an approach used to analyse both Standard and Non-Standard forms of English.

The opposite of descriptivism is prescriptivism. Prescriptivism, unlike descriptivism, asserts that certain language rules matter, authorising the 'correctness' of certain words, phrases, grammar, and the 'incorrectness' of others.

  • Prescriptivists focus on enforcing the pre-established grammar structures in their studies.

  • Descriptivists focus on analysing the language used in everyday communication.

Descriptivism, a tick and an x on a brown background, StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Prescriptivism is concerned with 'correct' and 'incorrect' ways to use language, unlike descriptivism.

Features of descriptivism

Here are the key things to remember about descriptivism:

Features of the Descriptivist Approach

Concerned with analysing the ways in which we use language in the real world/ daily life

Non-judgmental approach

Most frequently applied in academic linguistics to study language

Studies standard and non-standard forms of language

Evidence-based approach

What are some descriptivism examples?

Let's compare the use of two phrases, "If I were you" and "If I was you":

  • 'If I were you' is considered Standard English, and therefore grammatically correct from a prescriptivist perspective.

  • 'If I was you' is considered to be Non-Standard English, and therefore grammatically incorrect from a prescriptivist perspective. However, it is frequently used by English speakers in day-to-day language.

A descriptivist would take the position that neither phrase is incorrect, as they both function in a way other English speakers can comprehend. As long as language can be understood, descriptivism argues no use of language is wrong.

Remember: Descriptivism is concerned with real-world language!

Descriptivism: descriptivist philosophy

Today, the majority of academic linguists take a descriptivist approach.

The focus in linguistics is typically less on the rules of the English language, and more on the use of language in different contexts and among diverse communities.

  • Descriptivism is the preferred approach for analysing language, which makes it perfect for academic linguists who study languages around the world.

  • The analytical nature of descriptivism makes it a useful approach for analysing literature, as it allows for interpretation, unlike prescriptivism which evaluates language according to correctness.

Descriptivism, cartoon of a boy thinking, StudySmarter

Fig. 2 - Descriptivism allows us to interpret language according to different contexts.

Benefits of descriptivism

Descriptivism has particular benefits that make it the preferred approach:

  • It has destigmatised certain kinds of language.

  • In terms of non-standard speech varieties, descriptivism provides an analysis of language that is neither hierarchical nor critical, as prescriptivism tends to be.

  • It looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their use of language in an analytical and non-judgmental way, and can help to bridge the gap between social groups.

  • It offers a more accurate reflection of language use across the world than the prescriptivist approach. This is because it focuses on studying language as it is used in daily life.

  • It accounts for the ways languages evolve in different communities.

Shortfalls of descriptivism

There are areas in which descriptivism is not the preferred approach when observing language usage:

  • Consider those learning English for the first time. Prescriptivism might be the preferred approach as new learners would need to be aware of the rules of the language they are learning.

  • Descriptivism is a good approach for analysing language, but not necessarily for teaching language. In professional environments or when writing formally, for example, one would need to know the rules of the English language. It is important to be aware of when and where to use 'correct' grammar.

Linguistic descriptivism in the future

In the future, descriptivism may prove to be the more useful linguistic approach in mapping the evolution of language use around the world.

While prescriptivism can help us map the grammatical and structural rules of a language, descriptivists will be able to analyse how language evolves over time.

As our society continues to change and new forms of communication emerge, the descriptivist approach will help ensure that we are able to keep pace with these developments and document language as it actually exists. With its focus on inclusivity and respect for linguistic diversity, the descriptivist approach will remain an important tool for understanding and appreciating the complexity and richness of human language.

Descriptivism - Key takeaways

  • Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/ writers. It is a non-judgmental, evidence-based approach to analysing language use.

  • Descriptivism is concerned with analysing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users.

  • The opposite of descriptivism is prescriptivism.

  • The descriptivist approach to observing language has helped to destigmatise certain non-standard forms of English.

  • The descriptivist approach accounts for the ways language evolves in different communities rather than writing language variation and changes off as incorrect.

Frequently Asked Questions about Descriptivism

Linguistic descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a non-judgemental, evidence-based approach to analysing language use.

A descriptivist attitude is one that sees all language varieties as useful and valuable in different situations, rather than viewing one language variety as superior to the others. 

Descriptivism in ethics refers to the belief that moral statements express moral judgements. Ethical descriptivists believe that moral statements are either true or false.

In the study of English, descriptivism is an approach to language that focuses on the everyday use of language, rather than seeing certain language varieties as superior or inferior to others. 

Final Descriptivism Quiz

Question

T or F: Linguistic descriptivism refers to the belief that a particular form of language is superior to another and should be treated as such.  


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Answer

False; Linguistic descriptivism is the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a non-judgemental, evidence-based approach to analysing language usage.

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What is the aim of linguistic descriptivism?

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Answer

To establish the ‘correctness’ of certain words, phrases, grammar, and the ‘incorrectness’ of others.

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Question

What group of people is most likely to take a descriptivist approach?


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Answer

School teachers

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Fill in the blanks: Linguistic descriptivism refers to the analysis of how language is used by its speakers/writers. It is a __-______ approach to analysing language usage. 

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Answer

non-judgemental

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What is the relationship between prescriptivism and descriptivism?

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Answer

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are antithetical approaches to analysing language.

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T or F: Descriptivism is concerned with studying why language is used.


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Answer

False! Descriptivism is concerned with studying how language is used.

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In what field is descriptivism most likely to be used?


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Answer

Education

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T or F: The descriptivist approach can be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than the prescriptivist approach.

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Answer

True

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Salma has just started learning the English language. Why shouldn’t her English teacher take a descriptivist approach in teaching her?

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Answer

Because she would need to be aware of the rules of the language she is learning.

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 How has descriptivism contributed to destigmatising certain ways in which language is used?

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Answer

It looks at socially-stigmatised groups and their way of using language in an analytical and non judgemental way.

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Question

Fill in the blanks: The _______ approach can be a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than the ______ approach. This is because it focuses on studying language used in daily life.


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Answer

 descriptivist; prescriptivist

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Question

T or F: Both descriptivism and prescriptivism acknowledge that certain uses of language can be incorrect.


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Answer

False - Descriptivism does not see language usage as correct or incorrect.

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Question

Amanda wants to analyse the structural rules of African American Vernacular English. Why would descriptivism be a good approach?


  1. Because descriptivism is concerned with analysing and recording how language is used, and what this can reveal about its users. 

  2. Because descriptivism is the better approach for establishing correct and incorrect rules in language.

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Answer

a

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Why is descriptivism a more accurate reflection of language usage across the world than prescriptivism?


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Answer

Because it analyses our use of language used in daily life.

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Fill in the blanks: While ________ will be how we map the evolution of the grammatical and structural rules within a language, _______ is the way we will be able to analyse how these grammatical and structural rules evolve over time.

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Answer

prescriptivism, descriptivism.

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Which approach to language sees all language varieties as useful and valuable?

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Answer

Descriptivism

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Which of these is NOT a feature of descriptivism?

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Answer

Only analyses a few different types of language varieties

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Question

According to the descriptivist approach, which of these is correct?


'If I were you.'

'If I was you.'

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Answer

Both

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Question

Descriptivism is the preferred approach for analysing language. True or false?

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Answer

True

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Question

Which approach gives more leeway for interpretation?

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Answer

Descriptivism

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Descriptivism accounts for language change across different communities. Is this a benefit or a shortfall?

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Answer

Benefit

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Which approach is often seen as the most appropriate for teaching English to non-native speakers?

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Answer

Prescriptivism

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What is the future of descriptivism?

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Answer

Descriptivism will be a more useful approach to studying and analysing language and language change over time. 

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Question

Who tends to focus on enforcing the pre-established grammar structures?

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Answer

Prescriptivists

Show question

Question

Define 'descriptivism'.

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Answer

Descriptivism is an approach to language study that sees all language varieties as valuable and useful. It looks at everyday language use rather than saying one variety of language is superior or inferior to the next.

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