Linguistic description

ISBN (identifier) Phonology Cultural anthropology

In the study of language, description or descriptive linguistics is the work of objectively analyzing and describing how language is actually used (or how it was used in the past) by a speech community.[1]

All academic research in linguistics is descriptive; like all other scientific disciplines, it seeks to describe reality, without the bias of preconceived ideas about how it ought to be.[2][3][4][5] Modern descriptive linguistics is based on a structural approach to language, as exemplified in the work of Leonard Bloomfield and others.[6]

Descriptive vs. prescriptive linguistics

Linguistic description is often contrasted with linguistic prescription,[7] which is found especially in education and in publishing.[8][9]

As English-linguist Larry Andrews describes it, descriptive grammar is the linguistic approach which studies what a language is like, as opposed to prescriptive, which declares what a language should be like.[10]:25 In other words, descriptive grammarians focus analysis on how all kinds of people in all sorts of environments, usually in more casual, everyday settings, communicate, whereas prescriptive grammarians focus on the grammatical rules and structures predetermined by linguistic registers and figures of power. An example that Andrews uses in his book is fewer than vs less than.[10]:26 A descriptive grammarian would state that both statements are equally valid, as long as the meaning behind the statement can be understood. A prescriptive grammarian would analyze the rules and conventions behind both statements to determine which statement is correct or otherwise preferable. Andrews also believes that, although most linguists would be descriptive grammarians, most public school teachers tend to be prescriptive.[10]:26

History of the discipline

The first works of linguistic description can be attributed to Pāṇini, a grammarian of Sanskrit commonly dated around the 4th century BCE.[1] Philological traditions later arose around the description of Greek, Latin, Chinese, Hebrew, and Arabic, and Arabic. The description of modern European languages did not begin before the Renaissance – e.g. Spanish in 1492, French in 1532, English in 1586; the same period saw the first grammatical descriptions of Nahuatl (1547) or Quechua (1560) in the New World, followed by numerous others.[1]:185

Linguistic description as a discipline really took off at the end of the 19th century, with the Structuralist revolution (from Ferdinand de Saussure to Leonard Bloomfield), and the notion that every language forms a unique symbolic system, different from other languages, worthy of being described “in its own terms”.[1]:185


Almost all linguistic theory has its origin in practical problems of descriptive linguistics. Phonology (and its theoretical developments, such as the phoneme) deals with the function and interpretation of sound in language. Syntax has developed to describe how words relate to each other in order to form sentences. Lexicology collects words as well as their derivations and transformations: it has not given rise to much generalized theory.

Linguistics description might aim to achieve one or more of the following goals:[1]

  1. A description of the phonology of the language in question.
  2. A description of the morphology of words belonging to that language.
  3. A description of the syntax of well-formed sentences of that language.
  4. A description of lexical derivation.
  5. A documentation of the vocabulary, including at least one thousand entries.
  6. A reproduction of a few genuine texts.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e François & Ponsonnet (2013).
  2. ^ Kordić, Snježana (2010). Jezik i nacionalizam [Language and Nationalism] (PDF). Rotulus Universitas (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreb: Durieux. p. 60. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3467646. ISBN 978-953-188-311-5. LCCN 2011520778. OCLC 729837512. OL 15270636W. CROSBI 475567. COBISS 13436977. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 June 2012. Retrieved 11 August 2019.
  3. ^ Harimurti Kridalaksana (2007). "Bahasa dan Linguistik". In Kushartanti; Untung Yuwono; Multamia Lauder (eds.). Pesona bahasa: langkah awal memahami linguistik (in Indonesian). Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama. pp. 11–12. ISBN 9789792216813.
  4. ^ André Martinet (1980). Eléments de linguistique générale (in French). Paris: Armand Colin. pp. 6–7. ISBN 9786024523695.
  5. ^ Moch. Syarif Hidayatullah (2017). Cakrawala Linguistik Arab (Edisi Revisi) (in Indonesian). Gramedia Widiasarana Indonesia. pp. 5–6, 18. ISBN 9786024523695.
  6. ^ Hans Heinrich Stern (1983). "Concepts of language". Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching: Historical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Applied Linguistic Research. Oxford University Press. p. 136. ISBN 9780194370653.
  7. ^ McArthur, Tom, ed. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) — entry for "Descriptivism and prescriptivism" quotation: "Contrasting terms in linguistics." (p.286)
  8. ^ Robert Lawrence Trask (1999). Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics. Routledge. pp. 47–48. ISBN 9780415157414.
  9. ^ Nils Langer (2013). Linguistic Purism in Action: How auxiliary tun was stigmatized in Early New High German. Walter de Gruyter. p. 223. ISBN 9783110881103.
  10. ^ a b c Andrews, Larry (2006). Language Exploration and Awareness: A Resource Book for Teachers. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers. ISBN 0-8058-4308-6.