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 group of people in a speech community.
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. Modern descriptive linguistics is based on a structural approach to language, as exemplified in the work of Leonard Bloomfield and others.
Linguistic description is often contrasted with linguistic prescription, which is found especially in education and in publishing. Prescription seeks to define standard language norms and give advice on effective language use. It can be thought of as a presentation of the fruits of descriptive research in a learnable form, though it also draws on more subjective aspects of language aesthetics. Prescription and description are complementary, but they have different priorities which may be seen as conflicting. Description is sometimes distinguished from "descriptivism", which is then defined as the belief that description is more significant or important to teach, study, and practice than prescription.
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. 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. A descriptive grammarian would state that both statements are equally valid, as long as the receiver of the message can understand the meaning behind the statement. A prescriptive grammarian would analyze the rules and conventions behind the statements made and determine which statement is correct or otherwise preferable according to those rules. Andrews also believes that, although the majority of linguists would be descriptive grammarians, the majority of public school teachers tend to be prescriptive.
Accurate description of real speech is a difficult problem, and linguists have often been reduced to approximations. 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 the rules concerning 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.
An extreme "mentalist" viewpoint denies that the linguistic description of a language can be done by anyone but a competent speaker. Such speakers have internalized something called "linguistic competence", which allows them to extrapolate new meaningful expressions from their experience, and to reject expressions which do not convey meaning as the speaker intends. For example, an expression could be ambiguous, possibly leading to misinterpretations by the listener. Depending on the speaker's intent, ambiguity may be desirable (as in jokes and other humor).
A linguistic description is considered descriptively adequate if it achieves one or more of the following goals of descriptive linguistics:
- A description of the phonology of the language in question.
- A description of the morphology of words belonging to that language.
- A description of the syntax of well-formed sentences of that language.
- A description of lexical derivation.
- A documentation of the vocabulary, including at least one thousand entries.
- A reproduction of a few genuine texts.
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