350 - Rethinking Grammar: Who makes the rules?

Dr. Richard Epstein (Standard America accent)

And so what linguists do, what our job is, is to discover the patterns that people follow when they... when they use language, whether it be speaking or writing or... or... or signing. What we have discovered is that all people speaking all languages, in all dialects, follow extraordinarily complex rules, and the rules are totally subconscious because we learn them before we ever get to school and we learn by simply watching the adult caregivers around us, but we have no conscious awareness of what those rules are ‘cause we’re not taught them explicitly like we’re taught math. This kind of approach to language and grammar is very different from what people are used to because most people are exposed, if they’re exposed to grammar at all, they’re exposed to what’s called the prescriptive approach to grammar, which basically means they’re... they’re taught grammar as a system of... of “prescriptions,” in other words as a system of... of rules that you have to follow if you want to... to speak and write correctly, but these rules are not natural rules that we learn just by observation, these are rules that come about through social and political processes over the course of many, many centuries and that get incul... in... instilled in society in ways that people really don’t understand. So linguists end up with a very different view of language than normal people because we... we study language in a way that normal people aren’t exposed to.

Well, one of the misconceptions is students, because they’re only exposed to prescriptive grammar, they think that grammar means a list of arbitrary rules that you’re not supposed to do, so prescriptive grammar rules are things that you learn in school, like don’t use double negatives, don’t end sentences in prepositions, or don’t use the word “ain’t.” Really, the... there’s no particular person that we could locate the rule against “ain’t” to. “Ain’t” arose in the 19th century amongst American school teachers, then again it’s the usual story that aint is a word that’s regularly used by... by regular folks. Ironically, it’s also used frequently by the upper classes of... of British society because “ain’t” is the proper contraction for “I am not” but people forgot that a little bit and so the teachers didn’t remember anymore that “I am not” was normally contracted to “ain’t” and so, knowing that regular folks used “ain’t” but the upper classes of the United States didn’t, they created this sort of fake rule that you shouldn’t use “ain’t” because it didn’t make sense. Of course, it makes perfect sense to anybody who says it, but now we have this rule, so we’ve lost... we’ve lost a lot of expressive nuances through these prescriptive rules, so because we can’t say “ain’t” anymore, if you want to make a contraction with the pronoun I, you have to say “aren’t I” instead of “ain’t I?” which was the correct form, but of course “aren’t I?” makes no sense at all because who says “I are?” So the verb “are” is not supposed to go with the pronoun “I” but where we’re forced into this silliness, “I are” and “aren’t I” which makes no sense because of this arbitrar