Who determines what is correct usage?

Easterner   Thursday, October 28, 2004, 16:41 GMT
This question has cropped up at earlier threads, and I've been wondering why we perceive anything as "correct" or "incorrect" in a language.

There seem to be two main views on this issue. One of them is what I would call "normative", that is, it claims that the norm is educated native usage, and you are "correct" insomuch as you comply with this usage. The other one could be called the "liberal" or "laissez-faire" attitude, claiming that any way of speaking is correct in itself, that is, educated native English speech and, say, dialects spoken by uneducated speakers or various ethnic groups are of equal value.

Personally, I think educated native usage is definitely the most important norm for both native and non-native speakers in most situations, and it is based on the consensus of the educated native community (both people with higher education in general and language specialists in particular) regarding what is acceptable or not. On the other hand, even educated speakers use a slightly different, more relaxed variant of their language in less formal situations, including slang sometimes. Can this also serve as a model? I feel that you have to be aware of various levels of usage when learning a language, even if you may not be on the same level regarding the use of slang as, say, dock workers (no bias!). On the other hand, if you stick to an educated usage all the time, you may end up sounding "stiff" and unnatural in more relaxed situations.
lucky   Thursday, October 28, 2004, 18:07 GMT
hi, Easterner. I think your english and writing great. I'm envious.

I feel that ending up sounding stiff in informal circumstance would be better than sounding informal in formal circumtance.

what we really should do first before this debate is make consensus about the definition of 'incorrect', not who to determine whether correct or not. Some might think 'incorrect' as 'grammatical incorrect', some might think of 'using confusing or inacurrate word', some might think of kind of slang which might be considered language pollution. some might think of critical verbal mistake rarely made.

I don't doubt there "IS" incorrect usage in our language, especially by whom learning the language(I'll call it 'real-incorrection'). Trying to avoid the real-incorrection, some unnecessarily stick to right usage, some unnecessarily tend to imitate those of experts or text-book.

I'm rather 'liberal' than 'normative'. Nonetheless, as learner of english I can't help being afraid of 'incorrection'
for me, the definition of incorrection is 'sentence, that does not make a sense or that can't be understood by others'. I'm very afraid I've wrote that kind of sentences in this post.
D   Thursday, October 28, 2004, 18:18 GMT
Your definition of 'normative' is not the one usually used.
The distinction you are making is between formal and
colloquial speech.

Linguists use the word 'normative' to describe the view that there
are fixed rules for correct speech independently of _anyone_ using
the language. Hence a person with normative views could say with
a straight face that you should use the word whom in a certain way, etc, even if no living speaker actually does it.
The Academie Francaise have a very normative view of the
French language.

Linguists with a 'descriptive' view think that there are no fixed
rules, and that the best that can be done is to describe the
rules currently followed by the majority of educated speakers.

The reason for singling out 'educated' speakers is not to get
formal speech. The idea is that educated speakers are more
likely to have been exposed to literature and to other good
speakers, and thus are more likely to represent the 'true language'.

Educated speakers are also more consistent in their usage,
which is important for linguists who want to find patterns.
Steve K   Thursday, October 28, 2004, 18:38 GMT

You are on to something. Whenever I learn a new language I try to be conservative and speak a neutral language. I stay away from slang, colloquial terms etc. If I understand them, fine. If not I do not worry about it. I also try to write and speak the same way. Even a docker prefers to hear a foreigner speak correct English and does not expect slang from people who are not really fluent. When and if I become really good in the language I can then turn my attention to colloquialisms.

There is no such thing as absolute correctness. Everyone makes mistakes. But it sounds more educated to say "whom" than to say "who" if we are dealing with an object. That is what I say and generally what I hear from educated people. Yes there are poeple who do not say "whom" and there are people who say "I would have came", but their English sounds less educated.

It is like the Ebonics nonsense on another thread here. Most blacks would be horrified if Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell spoke Ebonics in public. And they would not be where they are if they did.
Tiffany   Thursday, October 28, 2004, 20:51 GMT
"It is like the Ebonics nonsense on another thread here. Most blacks would be horrified if Condoleeza Rice or Colin Powell spoke Ebonics in public. And they would not be where they are if they did."

Once again, I do not think is true. Ebonics is something a black owns - something a person of another race cannot steal without looking foolish. It's part of the black community. Blacks use GAE in public speech because no one would listen to them otherwise. You forget, it's not just black people that watch them - America is 70% white. I don't think it would be the black people that would be horrified if they did use ebonics.
Tom   Thursday, October 28, 2004, 23:21 GMT
There are prescriptivists and descriptivists. Prescriptivists say that correct usage is determined by grammarians. Descriptivists say that whatever is commonly used by educated native speakers is correct, regardless of whether grammarians approve of it.
Easterner   Friday, October 29, 2004, 07:00 GMT
Now I think of it, there are differences according to the level of formality to educated native speech as well. If you are an educated non-native speaker, you will have to cope with the polite variety used between strangers in the target community, the informal variety used between people who are familiar with each other, and at a more advanced level you should be familiar with slang or uneducated speech (features such as the use of double negation or "ain't"), even though you will practically never not need to use this latter one.

Steve K said: >>Even a docker prefers to hear a foreigner speak correct English and does not expect slang from people who are not really fluent. When and if I become really good in the language I can then turn my attention to colloquialisms.<<

That's an interesting point. I agree that beyond a certain point it will make you look ridiculous if you try to ape the speech of lower social classes, and keep using "ain't", for example. I guess dockers or less educated rural speakers will also do their best to sound educated in more formal setting or when talking to strangers (I have noticed this with Gypsies in Hungary: when talking to non-Gypsies, they cannot help speaking with a Gypsy accent, but will use polite style nevertheless). And taking the case when e.g. you work as a blue-collar worker as a non-native speaker, then it will be normal after a while to take over some features from working-class speech, but even in this case you will not have to mimic everything, because it may mark you as someone trying to over-assimilate, which many people find suspect.
Easterner   Friday, October 29, 2004, 07:07 GMT
>>at a more advanced level you should be familiar with slang or uneducated speech<<

I have to correct his: you may have to be familiar with slang or uneducated speech, but I don't think this is the case for the majority of non-native speakers.
Mi5 Mick   Friday, October 29, 2004, 07:44 GMT
Considering the mass media, let alone the real people in our lives, it's rare that a day goes by where slang isn't encountered; it's unimaginable to speak a language devoid of colloquialisms. Further, there are relatively fewer opportunities where the use of formal language is demanded, so unless one's scope is limiting or ambition lacklustre, it's hard to get by in life with strictly one mode of communication.
Achab   Sunday, October 31, 2004, 17:38 GMT
I’m not sure Tom’s definition of prescriptivists and descriptivists is correct.

To the best of my knowledge:

PRESCRIPTIVISTS = usage scholars who think there is only one correct way of speaking/writing, the one of learned people; they suggest anyone to write that way and they rate the many uses of language and state which ones are correct and which ones are clumsy (or simply display the uses they regard as correct ignoring the other ones)

DESCRIPTIVISTS = usage scholars who simply list and describe the many uses of language (both the ones prescriptivists regard as correct and the ones they regard as lousy) without stating any correctness-centered judgement
Steve K   Sunday, October 31, 2004, 18:11 GMT

It depends on your definition of colloquialism. Natural phrases do have to be learned, but not slang. I lived in Japan for 9 years, used Japanese all the time with friends, for business, read books, but always had trouble understanding soap operas on TV. My wife, who was born in Macau, speaks essentially native-like English and uses very little slang with friends and in her daily life here in Vancouver.

There is too much emphasis on using pop-culture for English language learning. Most learners do not need that kind of language. The more neutral their language, the more similar their written and spoken language is, the faster they can improve. Furtermore, inapporpriate usage of slang sounds very bad coming from a non-native speaker.