Standard English, Prescriptivism, and Language Ideology

Anne Curzan – University of Michigan
Course time: Tuesday/Thursday 9:00-10:50 am
2407 Mason Hall

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The prescriptive-descriptive binary, a commonplace in most introductory linguistics textbooks, can make it seem like prescriptivism lies outside the purview of serious linguistic study. This course puts prescriptivism at its center, as an important sociolinguistic factor in the development of Modern English as well as a key challenge to linguists in engaging the public in dialogue about linguistic diversity. In this course we will briefly cover the rise of standardization and Standard English in the history of English, and discuss the ways that morality—discourses of good and bad, right and wrong, pure and corrupt—has become entangled with grammar over the past three centuries. The course will tackle the definitions of Standard English and prescriptivism, as well as the nature of standard language ideology and authority. We’ll read a few key theoretical pieces as background and then address: (a) evolving attitudes about the prescriptive authority of usages guides and dictionaries; and (b) “grammar teaching” and Standard English in the educational system. At the end of the course, we will examine recent debates in the national media about language and “correctness” to think through how linguists can most productively engage in public discussions about language given the prescriptive language ideologies in widespread circulation.

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