Prescriptivism and descriptivism

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In linguistics, prescriptivism involves belief about how language "ought" to be, and attempts to prescribe a preferred form of a language, sometimes based on purism. Prescriptivism is not always a bad thing,[a] but often is poorly founded and has harmful effects.[which ones are relevant to Toki Pona?]

Conversely, descriptivism involves analysis of what language is like, and attempts to describe how speakers actually use it. This approach is used in academic research, because modern linguistics is a science. Like with other sciences,[b] the goal of linguistics is to describe how things are, without bias from preconceptions of how things should be. According to linguist lipamanka, "a descriptivist will note as many usages of the language as possible, but clarify how common they are."[1]

Conflicts[edit | edit source]

Some schisms in Toki Pona history and philosophy have been framed as a conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism.

The main example is prescription of pu-rism, the style used in the book Toki Pona: The Language of Good. A descriptive approach is more likely to acknowledge changes in the language since the book's publication in 2014, and the idea that jan Sonja's style can have idiosyncrasies that differ from general usage in practice.

jan Sonja herself has clarified her support for descriptivism. In 2021, she announced that the Toki Pona Facebook group had adopted a policy against prescriptivism,[2] and released Toki Pona Dictionary, which is compiled from surveys of a large community and argues for the legitimacy of popular additional words.

In 2024, jan Olipija argued that the book words (pu, ku, su, etc.) reveal ongoing prescriptivist tendencies in referring to the Official Toki Pona books as authoritative.[3]

In teaching[edit | edit source]

The concepts of prescriptivism and descriptivism can be confusing in teaching. Comments on whether a learner's use of the language is "correct" may be taken as prescriptivist. In reality, while such phrasing is not ideal, there is more nuance.

Descriptivism is not a free-for-all; it still describes the rules[better term?] and standards that proficient speakers have internalized. Generally, the goal is to teach Toki Pona as it is most widely used,[1] so that the learner can communicate effectively; and perhaps so that, if they still want to break the rules, they can do so skillfully and with a sense of how it will be interpreted. Telling a learner that they won't be understood, or are using an uncommon style of Toki Pona, is descriptive, and lipamanka recommends using such wordings instead of calling an utterance "wrong".[1]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. For example, one might prescribe inclusive language to avoid causing or perpetuating undue harm.
  2. For example, it would be silly for an ornithologist to write that a flock of birds is singing wrong.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 lipamanka. "descriptivism in toki pona". Retrieved 9 May 2024.
  3. jan Olipija. "pu, ku & su - A Reasonable Redefinition". luka pona. Blogspot. Retrieved 6 April 2024.