The French Academy's recent decision to butcher the French language led me into a discussion last night about the role of dictionaries in the English language. For those who don't know, dictionaries are often categorized into one of two groups: descriptivist dictionaries seek to chronicle language how it's used, while prescriptivist dictionaries seek to set a standard for language, determine what is and is not correct usage (and sometimes spelling) for a given word.
These categories are not absolute. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the prime example of the confusion the role of dictionaries can cause in society. The OED is often held up as the authoritative dictionary of the (British) English language, and is commonly seen as a resource which may be used to settle disputes over the proper usage of that tongue. Nevertheless, the OED is a descriptivist dictionary, and will include new words, and new definitions of existing words, provided there are credible examples of their common use. Further complicating matters are the OED's preference for -ize over -ise, despite the latter being the far more common suffix in use in British English, and thus the one a purely descriptivist dictionary would normally be assumed to favor.
The discussion I was having on these topics was with someone who was appalled at the thought that dictionaries should include definitions she felt incorrect or illiterate, just because they were in common use. One of the examples she cited was the inclusion in certain dictionaries, including the hallowed OED, of an alternate definition for the word "literally" to reflect its recent use, especially among youth, as a hyperbolic descriptor, where its use certainly does not reflect a literal truth.
On the whole, I tend to agree with this prescriptivist view. Although I accept that all languages naturally evolve, in my mind that evolution is only positive when it results in a more robust language. As new words are coined or develop to refer to advances in society, a language is strengthened by the use of new words to refer to new concepts, and I certainly see the need for the eventual inclusion of new words in dictionaries. However, I nevertheless feel that words have value only when they have meaning. In the example of "literally", the word's original meaning serves a purpose: it conveys that what you are expressing in the context you use it should be taken at face value. But if "literally" can also mean the exact opposite, then I as a listener need some other contextual indication for how the person using the word intends her phrase to be understood, and the word's inclusion in that phrase serves no purpose except to pad it out with unnecessary syllables.
I also see the value in descriptivism; however, I don't see it being value at the present, but in the future. Let's be frank: in most cases, a new word or definition being added to the dictionary is worth more as a news headline or a topic for pundits like me to rant about than it is as a dictionary entry. The sorts of people who are going to use "literally" hyperbolically already know it's used that way, and aren't going to care whether a dictionary gives its blessing to their linguistic faux pas. Those who suspect the word is being used incorrectly are also unlikely to ever look it up, because they already know its older definition, and can surmise, as a result, that its hyperbolic use is simply that of ignorant people using it incorrectly based off that existing definition, regardless of whether they accept that usage as correct or not.
The value I see in descriptivism, then, is that given to future generations. A hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now, when—like it or not—the English language will have evolved well beyond how it is used today, the records of our existence left behind for future generations to examine will be written, recorded, or otherwise preserved in the vernacular we use today. If contemporary dictionaries only chronicle language in its narrowest, most "correct" form, the value of the words we use today may end up being lost. By chronicling the English language as it is used, we offer to our descendants the ability to examine the literary masterpieces, the historical records, and even the graffiti we create today as it was meant to be consumed.
So I pose to you, Invictae: how do you like your dictionaries?
39 replies to this topic