The Language of Science: it’s OK to be prescriptivist

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Tumblr lately (I also post a lot of these blog posts on Tumblr, so yay!—built-in audience). To my surprise, I’ve discovered a not insignificant number of linguistically-oriented people on there. We talk about cool things, like etymology, difficulty people have learning languages, even conlangs. But by far the favorite topic of tumblinguists is prescriptivism.

In linguistics, prescription or prescriptivism is the practice of championing one variety or manner of speaking of a language against another. To put it mildly, we on Tumblr are not fans. Whenever some unwitting schmuck complains about someone’s nonstandard speech or grammar, someone’s on hand to remind them that it’s probably not wrong, just different. Sometimes these reminders are gentle, sometimes not. Of course, things sometimes get a little extreme, to the point of “correcting anyone’s speech ever is pedantic and racist and y u HATIN and RUINING ALL THE THINGS EVAR.” Though I largely agree with the takedowns of prescriptivists I’ve seen (and there are some great ones–and mine), it got me thinking about instances where authoritatively enforcing rules of language may be not just desirable but necessary.

The idea that prescriptivism is bad is pretty well drilled into you in linguistics courses. It has to be. The only way to properly do linguistics is to work with actual data about how people actually use language, rather than some abstract idea. However, semanticists, of which I am one (in training) may tend a little more toward prescription than other linguists. Obviously, descriptivism still is the way to go when discussing meaning because a word only means something because people agree that it does, but when trying to answer the deeper semantic question of what makes that word mean that thing, we tend to require some strictures be maintained. Thus, a semanticist might be more likely to get upset over “I herd you’re idea’s and there very good” than a morphologist or a syntactician might be over “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Because language is not used in isolation, words must necessarily mean certain things and those meanings have to be relatively static. Semantic shift happens, but it’s slow, because there is a best way to speak English, or any other language. And that way is… the way that gets your meaning across with as little effort as possible.

Language is our primary tool for describing our world. As such, when talking about most things, you can be a little fast and loose with meaning, which is where wordplay and other wonderful things come from. If we were always strict prescriptivists with word meanings, literature and the arts would suck. Even there, though, you can’t just suddenly decide that “dog” means “word” and then start using any old dog to mean anything you like.

Things get stricter the further down the line you go from describing things in terms of simile and metaphor to more surface-level entities to the basic structure of stuff like math and logic. At this level, just like there are laws of physics and rules of math, there are laws of meaning and rules of language.

Well, there’s a rule: the more important the word in the context, the more prescribed its meaning has to be.

In science, a “theory” is not just an idea that lives in someone’s head. It’s an explanation rooted in experimentation and data.

In logic, a “proposition” is not just a proposal. It’s an idea that has a specific truth value.

A “skeptic” doesn’t just disbelieve something. A skeptic seeks answers based on verifiable evidence.

A “hypothesis” is not just a guess, even an educated one. It’s an explanation that can actually be tested.

“Truth” is not the thing that gives you warm fuzzies. Truth is the way things really work.

“Two” is two. You wouldn’t try to redefine that, would you? Why these other words?

Yeah, some people use “theory” to just mean a guess. But that is not what a theory is. If it were, your iPhone probably wouldn’t work.

To stand by while people either ignorant or with an agenda try to redefine words like “theory” or “hypothesis” is not simply allowing for differences in language. Outside of scientific literacy, doing so is just a little annoying. Within science, it’s allowing pollution to infiltrate the very nature the method we use to describe reality.

We use terms like these to define specific, repeatable phenomena, and so the semantics of those terms in those contexts have to be relatively fixed and very conservative in order for the repeatable, verifiable things they describe to stay repeatable and verifiable. This is so because we as a language community have defined terms like “repeatable” and “verifiable” to mean things that have such relevance to our scientific method. So there are rules.

The rules were not imposed from on high by an authority. They just arose and we agreed to them because we needed to communicate specific things. We are, whenever we communicate, to some extent descriptively prescriptivist. Conversations in certain domains require that the terms used be and stay well-defined. Some more than others, but the domains in which the need for precision in language is enforced are the ones that often underpin all our other activities.

So I will continue to insist on using words in their correct, “prescribed” senses. I will continue to insist that “theory” means a specific thing in science and that you can’t horn in on that meaning with the layman’s meaning without diluting the structure of science itself. I will continue to insist that important words like “truth” mean specific things (at least until better words come along, like “truthiness”). I will continue to insist the music “affected” you deeply, but it did not “effect” you (unless the sound vibrations actually altered matter to create your body, in which case, I’m sorry, this must be very confusing for you). And I will continue to insist on harping on you when you mess up “there”/”they’re”/”their” and “your”/”you’re”, because I’ve heard your other ideas, and they’re not good.

Yes, it’s semantic quibbling, but if that’s all that stands between us and barbarous unmeaning, I’ll take it.

About nkrishna

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