The Prime Directive in Linguistics: Problems with Non-Interference

In the new Star Trek film, Star Trek Into Darkness, *SPOILER ALERT* Kirk and Spock debate the Prime Directive, which is the principle of non-interference with people who have not become interstellar space-faring civilizations. In the process of saving a non-Industrialized culture from a volcano, Kirk reveals the Starship Enterprise to the people he is trying to save. As a result, they draw an icon in the dirt that represents the ship, implying that the Enterprise will now become a symbol in their culture–either for good or for ill. The point is: Kirk violated the Prime Directive. Because of this, he is stripped of his command and demoted by Starfleet brass. *END SPOILERS*

I see a principle like the Prime Directive operating in descriptive linguistics. The descriptivist attitude towards language is one of non-interference, to the extent that they are not interested in how language should be spoken, but rather how it is spoken. Many fellow linguists, when trying to describe their work to laypeople, are often mistaken for being basically professional grammar Nazis. This could not be further from the truth. Descriptive linguists endeavor to understand how language is structured and how it functions both in the mind and in society. Ask a descriptivist: “How do you pronounce this word? Is this sentence grammatical?” They may tell you that it varies across regional dialects and sociolects and even idiolects (variationists). Or they might say they need to run an experiment first (experimental linguists). Or they may say current theory predicts that such and such an utterance is grammatical/ungrammatical, etc. (generativists). They WILL NOT say:
Language Meme

Descriptive linguists respect the fact that language is an artifact of human culture and any researcher interference through prescribing so-called “correct” language not only threatens the validity of linguistics research but also represents an asymmetrical power relationship between the researcher and the participants in a study–that is, the researcher “knows better” than the speakers of the language. We know that prescriptive language policies can destroy minority languages–and so descriptivists avoid interference so as not to damage the culture.

But not all linguists accept the idea that non-interference is possible or preferable. Anthropological linguist Heinz Kloss, whom I discovered at a recent Lingchat on Twitter, argues that the descriptivist view articulated above is “romantic” at best:

Early in 1964 a leading German linguist stated in a public lecture that while in Communist-dominated East Germany the language is being manipulated from on high, nothing of this kind would be permissible in the free world where languages grow and change according to the bent of their speakers without any interference from ‘above’. This rather romantic view does not do justice to the exigencies of the age we live in. Ours being an age of rapidly increasing interdependence and interaction between all parts of the globe, no language can hope to live on in secluded, sheltered isolation. In terms not of years but of decades (or at most one or two centuries) this may mean that with regard to each single linguistic community either the speakers themselves or the governments in question must come to a decision as to whether the language is to persist or die…. They either will reshape their language or its usefulness will become more and more restricted until perhaps they may have to abandon it altogether.

For Kloss, “shaping,” or interfering, is just a part of the nature of language politics in this era. And, according Kloss, it is the duty of language scholars to try to influence the shaping of the languages they study–perhaps not always through prescriptivism, of course. Scholars can help shape languages through language planning and maintenance efforts. But Kloss’s point is that it does no good to pretend to not interfere; interference happens eventually, so we should try to do it ethically.

I think a caveat here would be that such influence should occur within something like a Participatory Action Research framework, where the scholars collaborate on equal footing with the speakers of the language and the aims of the research are determined by the linguistic community in question. Otherwise, the influence can turn to oppression; this is exactly what happened with the *SPOILER ALERT* Enterprise crew, who tried to save a civilization without collaborating with them. *END SPOILERS* Interference is inevitable; equality is not. Equality needs to be a part of language shaping or else it leads to “savior” mentalities, which, again, *SPOILER ALERT* the results of the Enterprise incident reveal can radically alter the trajectory of a culture *END SPOILERS.*

The Prime Directive may make sense in “space, the final frontier,” but here on Earth, “languages do not just grow and wither like plants” (Kloss, p. 29). Languages come in contact with political entities and other languages inevitably, and any model of language or linguistic research framework that does not recognize this seems to miss a rather important part of languages in the 21st century. The rather simplistic descriptivist paradigm I have been romantically constructing in my mind, I think, is in need of a little deconstruction. But that’s what the PhD is for, after all.


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