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.François & Ponsonnet (2013). 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.

Descriptive vs. prescriptive linguistics

Linguistic description is often contrasted with linguistic prescription, — entry for "Descriptivism and prescriptivism" quotation: "Contrasting terms in linguistics." (p.286) which is found especially in education and in publishing. 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 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.

History of the discipline

The first works of linguistic description can be attributed to Pāṇini, a grammarian of Sanskrit commonly dated around the . Philological traditions later arose around the description of Greek, Latin, Chinese, Hebrew, 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. 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”.


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: # 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.

See also

* Mondegreen * GOLD (ontology) * Grammatical gender * Text linguistics * Language documentation * Linguistic relativity * Linguistic typology



* * * Haviland, William A. (2005)
''Cultural Anthropology: The Human Challenge''
Thomson Wadsworth. * Renouf, Antoinette & Andrew Kehoe (2006)
''The Changing Face of Corpus Linguistics''
408 pp. p. 377. * Rossiter, Andrew (2020)

207 pp. {{ISBN|979-8645611750 Category:Linguistics Category:Analysis