If you’re as madly obsessed with language and linguistics as everyone here at Bubbles Translation Services, there’s a good chance you’ll have heard somebody refer to themselves as either a prescriptivist or a descriptivist at some point in your life.
So for the vast majority of you that aren’t, some explanation is probably in order.
Prescriptivism vs. descriptivism: What’s it all about?
A prescriptivist believes that one, generally standardised, variety of language is the correct way to speak, and that alternative varieties, be they dialects, vernaculars, creoles or pidgins, are all variations of ‘not a real language’ and should, therefore, be discouraged.
Your average prescriptivist probably wears a long cape, a scholar’s cap and stands in front of a dusty old blackboard telling you not to end sentences with prepositions.
A descriptivist, on the other hand, believes (you guessed it) the exact opposite. Descriptivist thought argues that language is a naturally evolving phenomenon, that there is no objective way to do it, and any discussion about ‘proper’ vs. ‘improper’ language is fundamentally flawed.
In layman’s terms, a prescriptivist thinks ‘selfie’ is a bastardisation of the English language and a descriptivist thinks that words evolve all the time, they always have done, and this is just one of the latest.
This probably sounds like a pointless argument that academics have in dusty rooms. However, if you’re marketing to people in other languages, you’re going to have to think carefully about which words and phrases you’re using in order to do so effectively.
So which school of thought is the right one when you’re crafting slogans and copy for your business?
Why descriptivism is the way forward
Regular readers of this blog won’t have to think hard about which camp we’re in.
We’ve spoken at some length about language as an organically evolving phenomenon, and how any attempt to create arbitrary rules about which of these developments is a ‘proper’ or ‘improper’ use of language is a fairly substantial waste of time.
In fact, the very idea that standardised languages are inherently different from colloquialism, dialects or vernaculars is in itself flawed logic.
Whether it’s Received Pronunciation, Hochdeutsch, Castellano or le Français Standard, most established nation-states (particularly in the west) have a single, standardised version of the language that people consider the right and proper way to speak.
But there’s really no logical argument to explain why they deserve such recognition. Standardised languages were once upon a time just local dialects, generally ones that were once spoken in areas that later became the nation’s capital, whose speakers had the power, money and influence to convince everyone else of their dialect’s superiority.
And fair enough, really. Everyone thinks the way they speak is the right way to speak and everyone else is simply wrong. If you need further proof of that, marvel at the great age-old UK pronunciation debate (war?) over the word ‘scone’.
However, it’s the role of those of us who work with language to accept that the reality is a bit more nuanced than this. There’s no right way to pronounce scone, and there’s certainly no correct way to speak English, German, Spanish or, dare even we suggest it, French.
What does this mean for your international marketing strategy?
In most circumstances, a descriptivist mindset is exactly what you should take when marketing around the world. You want to talk to people in their language – but moreover, your campaigns should use language empathically and resonantly. Taking a judgemental view of the social superiority of their specific use of words, accent or dialect isn’t exactly the best way of going about doing that.
Marketing to Catalonians in Castilian Spanish just because someone once told you that it was ‘proper’ Spanish, for example, isn’t likely to yield successful results. Particularly since last October…
But as is always the case in language and marketing, the reality is just a little bit more nuanced.
Despite descriptivism being the (ahem) correct school of thought, there’s still plenty of people who think there is such a thing as ‘proper’ English. Often these people also think they speak proper English, and that others around them are socially, physically or morally inferior to them for not doing so.
Anyway, regardless which mindset is the correct one, these people are just as likely to be potential customers as dialect or vernacular speakers – and a successful marketing campaign shouldn’t seek to burst their slightly overinflated prescriptivist bubble. Those who view standard French as the only proper version of the language would probably prefer to be spoken to in standard French than in a more colloquial local vernacular.
In short, it’s about knowing your customers’ in detail. Having a thorough knowledge of people’s language, culture, and more importantly their expectations is far more important than taking either a descriptivist or prescriptivist approach to marketing alone.
If it’s this tricky to get your head around opposing linguistic expectations of different groups of people in English, how exactly do you do it in a language that you presumably have no understanding of?