Linguistic Cosmos and TaxisEugene takes on the language police, and for the most part I agree with him. Language is, as Eugene argues, a “grown order” that evolves over time. New usages emerge and old ones die, in response to the real needs of real language users. Trying to freeze the language in place -- or worse yet, turn back the clock to some earlier version of the language -- is a pointless and (to the rest of us) annoying endeavor.
But I do have a nit to pick, as I think Eugene’s criticism goes too far. He says:
Linguistic prescriptivism (dictionarymakers recording what they think should be the usage, not what is the usage), is a "made order" -- a judgment of a small group of people selected for the purpose of rendering their judgment. Made orders are sometimes useful, for instance in the setting of technical standards. But as to language, I think the grown order approach is far more likely to yield a language that is genuinely responsive to users' needs than the made order approach.Yes, grown orders (also known as spontaneous orders) are generally more responsive than made orders. But does any form of linguistic prescriptivism necessarily fall in the latter category? Unless the prescriptivists actually attempt to enforce their standards on the rest of us in the manner of the French Academy, the power of the prescriptivists to influence the language is dependent on the willingness of other speakers to follow their lead. In other words, the prescriptivists' admonitions have their place within the grown order of language. If you want a real example of a made order in language, try Esperanto.
Consider the analogy with the free market, another type of spontaneous order. The defining characteristic of this order is *not* the absence of hierarchy or deliberate organization; otherwise, we’d have to conclude that the existence of firms violates the principles of the market. The defining characteristic of the market order is the absence of an overarching authority with the ability to command specific outcomes. Within this decentralized framework, influential people and organizations may work to achieve specific outcomes on a voluntary basis. The linguistic prescriptivists are analogous to the managers of a firm who, upon observing a new competitor that claims to make a better mousetrap, stubbornly insist that the old-fashioned mousetrap is superior. And maybe they’re right; the real test is in the mousetrap-buying choices of consumers. Likewise, in language, the test of the prescriptivists’ prescriptions is their staying power.