Linguistics: An Introduction

By William B. McGregor



1.2 — Language purity and prescriptivism

Recall from the text of §1.1 that prescriptivism is alive and well in Western societies, and in some countries (e.g. France) there are institutions that lay down the law as to what is “correct”. Even in a country with no such bodies, you should have no trouble finding complaints in the media (TV, radio, newspapers) about “bad language” — what is the young generation doing to it? According to these notions we should keep our language pure (perhaps changeless?).

Linguistics is not prescriptive, but descriptive. And in fact, the prescriptive notions of speakers is one of the things that is interesting to linguists.

It is sometimes suggested that prescriptivism, and the notions of language purity are a peculiarity of the West, not shared by other peoples. Personally, I strongly doubt this claim. True, it may be that there are some communities of speakers who do not express these ideas. But they are definitely found outside of the West.

Here is one example I came across recently from a book describing a trip that the author (he is the Theo) had done in the early 1920s from Hermansburg Mission to Horseshoe Bend. (The story is written up from diaries the author kept.) Almost every sentiment Njitiaka expresses will be familiar to you. Which is not?

From Journey to Horseshoe Bend

He always talked very loudly; and his speech, instead of flowing smoothly in the normal Western Aranda manner, showed rather the somewhat staccato pattern that was so characteristic of Lower Southern Aranda speakers, but which was found also among some of the Upper Southern Aranda folk. From his contacts with the Henbury visitors at Hermannsburg Theo had become aware of at least some of the dialectal differences between the speech of the Henbury and Hermannsburg Aranda groups. These differences had always led to much good-humoured mockery and banter among the children: everyone loved mimicking the speech of their dialectal neighbours, and then laughing at it. Theo was frequently amused when he heard Njitiaka talking, and the latter retorted by passing derogatory remarks about Theo’s Western Aranda manner of speaking. It was only occasionally that Theo and Njitiaka were unable to understand the meaning of individual words in each other’s speech. Then they would ask and argue with each other about these words, with Njitiaka bluntly protesting that he had difficulty in understanding the “corrupt” dialect of the Western Aranda. He had Theo at a disadvantage here — a boy of fourteen could not repeat to a middleaged man the stock Western Aranda reply that the harsh, broad, and halting chatter of the Southern Aranda was an utterly stupid and ridiculous kind of expression.

The black forests of desert oaks, whose moonsilvered crests were shimmering so brightly, kept on exciting Theo’s intense admiration; for he had never before travelled through sandhill country at night. Eventually he passed a remark to Njitiaka concerning the brightness of the moon, referring to it by its Western Aranda name of “taia”. Njitiaka, in true or wilful ignorance, failed to understand Theo at first, and when the latter finally pointed at the moon, he exclaimed gruffly, “Why don’t you give the thing its proper name? You don’t want to talk to me like one of those stupid Western Aranda men who don’t know their own language.” Then he explained to Theo proudly, “We Southerners alone have kept the Aranda tongue in all its purity as it has been handed down to us: the Western men have corrupted the speech of their forefathers. “Talpa” is the only correct word for what white men call the moon; as for “taia”, I do not know what that means: I have not heard my fathers using such a word.”

Strehlow, T. G. H. (1969), Journey to Horseshoe Bend. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Updated: Aug. 3, 2009