“Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.”
~ Winston Churchill
In the United States, children in English class are taught a slew of rules about their language. Innumerable rules. Our English teachers tell us we’re not allowed to split our infinitives, dangle our prepositions, or ever take our eyes off those inscrutable gerunds, transitives, primary auxiliaries, modal auxiliaries, participles… you name it!
They tell us that “ain’t” ain’t a word and that the plural of “fish” is “fish” while the plural of “ox” is “oxen”. The value begins to break down, however, when grammarians insist that the rules of English are rigid and unchanging. In fact, strict grammarians claim that most of our language rules change little from generation to generation. English teachers of this camp are what linguistics call “prescriptivists,” a term for people who prescribe what the rules of language are and should continue to be.
On the other side of the spectrum is what linguists call “descriptivists,” people who describe the rules of language as they are spoken by the majority of its users. Descriptivists believe that language is a living thing. It evolves as people use it. (Psssst! We’re descriptivists.) Taking a descriptive view of language lets us talk about what people actually say instead of what we think they ought to be saying.
If we listened to prescriptivists, Elvis would have been hanged (or is it “hung”?) for singing “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.” We couldn’t say that crews of sunken ships are “sleeping with the fishes.” The millions of native English speakers who say “I had drank some juice” would have to be sent back to 5th grade. We wouldn’t be able to warn someone that we’re about to “pass out”, “give up”, or “fall down”. And worst of all, we would never have been able “to boldly go where no one has gone before”.
While it may seem otherwise, we’re not actually in favor of linguistic anarchy. Heavens no! Rather, what we’d love to see is a slightly less rigid approach to linguistic rules. Unlike the laws of nature, language is man-made. Over the course of millennia, we created our family of languages to solve a universal problem: how to communicate essential information in order to navigate, together, the myriad challenges our environment posed. And still poses. Because our environments (and needs) change… so too must our language, rules and all.
In this regard, we can look at pronunciation rules much like grammar rules. They’re important; in fact, they’re vital. But they’re also fluid. One generation of American English speakers pronounce the ‘t’ in “water”, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. One generation pronounces the ‘al’ in specifically, the next generation (or two) doesn’t. So when do we know which pronunciation patterns are “right” and which are “wrong”? We think it all goes back to the question of why they’re rules in the first place. Is it because that’s the way Shakespeare spoke? (By the way, I reread Hamlet a little while back. It’s a far cry from positive, grammatical role modeling!) Is an accent right because of certain intrinsic, universally agreed upon values? Maybe not. We believe that when the vast majority of people use the same pronunciation patterns, this becomes, defacto, the “correct” accent. Why? Because chances are we’ll all have a better chance of getting our point across… of being understood. That’s why we teach Standard American Pronunciation. It’s not because it’s inherently correct. “Correct” changes over time. It’s because it works!