Lecture by Douglas Kibbee, October 21, 2011

Rethinking Prescriptivism

by Douglas Kibbee, Professor, Department of French, and Director, School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

3:00 – 5:00 pm, Friday, October 21, 2011 in B-4 Dwinelle Hall

At a meeting held as part of a national dialogue across France to determine what it means to be French, a participant from Nanterre declared that ‘speaking French correctly’ was an essential attribute. The determination of what ‘speaking French correctly’ means became a matter of state interest in the 17th Century.

Prescription, intentional efforts to establish correct and incorrect language, is at the heart of linguistics and the heart of each linguistic community. In linguistic communities, the limits of membership are drawn by specific shibboleths. The bases for determining who is the same, and who is the other, are constructed in skirmishes over the control of any given language, a battle that reflects power structures within the community.

In France those shibboleths were established first in the political battles over royal authority, and canonized in Claude Favre de Vaugelas’ Remarques sur la langue françoise (1647). Although controversial at the time, some of the same markers have enjoyed continuous currency to the present time, surviving multiple changes in political and linguistic theory. Language education and language testing have played an important role in imposing and enforcing these norms.

In this talk I trace the history of French prescriptivism, relate it to American practices, and consider how linguistics should incorporate this universal phenomenon of language behavior.
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