Linguistic Prescription - Authority


Prescription presupposes an authority whose judgment may be followed by other members of a speech community. Such an authority may be a prominent writer or educator such as Henry Fowler, whose English Usage defined the standard for British English for much of the 20th century. The Duden grammar (first edition 1880) has a similar status for German. Although dictionary makers often see their work as purely descriptive, their dictionaries are widely used as prescriptive authorities by the community at large. Popular books such as Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which argues for stricter adherence to prescriptive punctuation rules, have phases of fashion and are authoritative to the extent that they attract a significant following.

In some language communities, linguistic prescription is regulated formally. The Académie française in Paris is an example of a national body whose recommendations are widely respected though not legally enforceable. In Germany and the Netherlands, recent spelling reforms were devised by teams of linguists commissioned by the government and were then implemented by statute. Some were met with significant political dissent, as in the case of the German orthography reform of 1996.

Other kinds of authorities exist in specific settings, such as publishers laying down a house style which, for example, may either prescribe or proscribe particular spellings or grammatical forms, such as serial commas. Some authorities may be self-appointed campaigners whose rules are propagated in the popular press, as in "proper Cantonese pronunciation".

Examples of prescriptive bodies include:

  • The Académie française is the national language-governing academic body whose recommendations, though legally unenforceable, are respected for maintaining standard French.
  • The Canadian province of Québec, where French is perceived to be particularly threatened by the incursion of English, has its own Office québécois de la langue française.
  • The German-speaking nations (Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Switzerland) established national, normative spelling usages for their respective varieties of the language by statute with the German orthography reform of 1996. This reform has remained so controversial that in a plebiscite in Schleswig Holstein in 1998, the vast majority of voters decided that the reform was not to be executed in the Federal State; however the Schleswig-Holstein parliament overruled this decision in 1999. Many major German newspapers chose to implement the reform only in part (e.g. Axel Springer AG, Der Spiegel) or not at all, ending a period where unified German spelling (German: Rechtschreibung, verbatim: right writing), although officially only mandatory in government and educational use, was the de facto standard in German spelling.
  • In the Netherlands, standardized spelling norms were compulsory for Dutch government publications — yet popular and mass communications media language applied an adapted spelling reform, see Wordlist of the Dutch language and the White Booklet.
  • During the era of the Soviet Union the Union of Soviet Writers policed the Russian language with prescriptive linguistics to establish a standardized Russian language.
  • The standard of Spanish is maintained in 21 countries by the Real Academia Española in affiliation with the Association of Spanish Language Academies.
  • The Albanian standard language (the Tosk variety) is regulated by the Social Sciences and Albanological Section of the Academy of Sciences of Albania.
  • The regulating body for standard Romanian is the Romanian Academy; its resolutions and recommendations are acknowledged by the Romanian state and other entities where Romanian is officially recognised (e.g., the European Union and Vojvodina). In the Republic of Moldova, the only country besides Romania where Romanian is the official language of the state, the language is officially called "Moldovan" and it is regulated by the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, through its Institute of Linguistics.

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