Deregulating English

I’ve finished up my summer session class on the History of the English Language (hence my blogging hiatus). In the last class meeting though, a student introduced a new metaphor I need to think more about.

Jamey Strathman talked about prescriptivism in terms of regulation and deregulation of language (arguing for deregulation). The metaphor freshened the contrast between description and prescription for me. I had been thinking about it and discussing it in terms of the naturalness of change and the importance of embracing the diversity and flexibility of dialects, registers and styles. By extension, this requires a critique of many artificial rules and grammar superstitions (you know the ones).

The regulation metaphor put things in public policy or even political terms. Deregulated language is free market; regulated language is social engineering. But we embrace some regulation for the public good– we want pure water, unadulterated food, clean air and safe products. So can the question of prescription be reframed in terms of the public good, with language free to let the market decide or subject to rules.

I’m stuck wondering this: if someone supports regulation in the marketplace, should they support language regulation? If they support deregulation in the marketplace, should they support grammatical freedom? And vice versa, twice. I need to think this through more.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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