under_thumb“Prescriptivism” is a linguistic term describing a fixed, snooty, conservative view toward language. It is an unnoticed attitude that often tries to trick us.

Perhaps the prescriptivist’s attitude is due to their wrong-view of language, or perhaps it is due to their snooty personality: the prescriptivist simply has a personality type that chooses prescriptivism to support their controlling habits. After all, our philosophical, theological and political positions are often formed to comfort our temperaments and preferences. We tell ourselves that we have thought through our positions, but often our positions are merely created for us by our minds. Then, our minds trick up, to think we intentionally chose those positions.

I see two types of language prescriptivists:

1. Enforcing prescriptivists: who tell us how we should talk or write — deriding any break in what they feel should be rules. They want to enforce their rules in language.

2. Definitions prescriptivists: who tell use exactly what a word means and decry any emerging uses.

But “prescriptivism” displays itself in many realms and not just linguistics — and in similar forms:

Religion Prescriptivists:

1. Those who tell us what is the right religion or the right theology — what religion we should believe.

2. Those who tell us exactly what “Christian/Buddhist/Atheist/Jew/Hindu means.

Political Prescriptivists:

1. Those who tell us what political positions are the only intelligent, compassionate, moral or rational — what political position we must follow.

2. Those who tell us exactly what political terms must mean.

Moral Prescriptivists

1. Those who want to legislate their personal moral preferences.

2. Those who want to tell us how moral terms must be used and defined.

Of course a wishy-washy indecisive world would have a whole set of its own undesirable traits. So prescriptions are often helpful — sometimes we need to persuade others or be persuaded.  Heck, society is a complex compromise of persuasion games. But it is useful to know when we are prescribing or being prescribed to. We need to be aware that behind rhetoric is temperaments and desires — and then choose if we agree, but not be tricked by the rhetoric.


See my other posts of Prescriptivism and Prescriptivists:

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Illusions of Stability: Dictionaries & Printing Presses

Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in Germany around 1450, and then William Caxton introduced it to England in 1476. Five major dialects of English existed at that time and as early as the 1430s the Chancery of Westminster had made efforts to standardize spellings for written documents of English. With the printing press the standardization success blossomed. Choices of publishers quickly influenced the evolution of English.

About a century later, the first English dictionary was written: “A Table Alphabeticall” by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The Italians had theirs 8 years earlier and the French 35 years earlier. While the Arabs had theirs 800 years earlier and the Indians had their first Sanskrit dictionary 1,000 years earlier. Mass distributed dictionaries were published over the next 150 years and the standardization of English progressed hugely.

I think it is because with our long history of fairly standardized English, the average person today is often blind to the real nature of language. They think that words have real definitions, real meanings. But with only a little study, it is clear that language, by nature, is constantly changing. Running into such illusions I stability I constantly challenge language prescriptionists by saying:

“Language is a temporary cooperative contract between people.”

Source & Inspiration: The History of English — an excellent website


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Sunshowers: Foxes or Witches?


When rain falls from a blue sky
in the hour of the horse
the great fox king takes his bride.

Today, as I drove to work, the sun was shining and yet it began to pour rain. Huge gusts of wind buffeted my car, dry leaves blew across the street and suddenly the rain turned into hail. It was mysterious weather. Weather which caused my Japanese mind to immediately recall the expression “Kitsune no Yomeiri” — A Fox’s Wedding.

fox-wedding-2Above is a translation of a 19th century Japanese haiku master, Masaoka Shiki. But what is a fox king? Recently, the popular TV anime, Naruto, has a hero who is possessed by a nine-tailed fox. Foxes play a large role in Japanese culture: a mischievous, magical, clever and bewitching creature. Rain during the sunshine is part of the Japanese fox’s story.

Rain during sunshine, being unusual, is given special names in many languages and countries. In English we boringly calls this phenomena “sunshowers” and even then, most people don’t know this phrase. With a little reading, in this wiki article I found three big patterns for naming sunshowers in other countries:

Animal Weddings:

  • Bear: Bulgaria
  • Donkeys: Greece
  • Donkey and Monkey: Sudan
  • Foxes: Japan, Bangladesh
  • Jackals: Pakistan
  • Wolf & Jackal: Afrikaans, Morocco
  • Wolves: Algeria, France

Animal Births:

  • Deer: El Salvador
  • Hyena: Eritrea
  • Lioness: Tanzania

the_devil_beats_his_wifeDevils, Zombies & Witches:

  • Southern USA & Hungary: some call it “the devil is beating his wife” (the rain being her tears).
  • Catalonia, Spain: the witches are brushing their hair
  • Croatia: Gypsies are getting married
  • Puerto Rico: A witch is getting married
  • Haiti: Zombie is beating his wife for salty food

Well, I enjoyed exploring all this today, so I thought I’d share it here. Click here to read a good article on the Japanese tradition.



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Japanese Poetry Timeline


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Have you ever had something of yours described as “little” is these ways:

“Are you going to work on your little project today?”
“Did you ride on your little motorcycle yesterday?”
“We can use your little system, if you insist.”

Here “little” is obviously being used as a subtle slam. And it is obvious that women use the word far more when talking to men than the other way around. For instance, why wouldn’t a woman phrase the motorcycle question like this:

“Did you ride your suffice and pleasing motorcycle yesterday?”

No, instead they intentionally choose “little”, and they know it.  I hear this sort of thing often, so using the examples in the beginning of this post, I confront implicit insult to my manhood and will replies like:

“There is nothing about my project that is little.”
“My motorcycle is not the least bit little.”
“My system is big, not little.”

Don’t let “little” go unchallenged.  Protest!

I hope you have enjoyed my BIG post today.


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Poetry: Tom Hennen

Looking for the Differences
by Tom Hennen

I am struck by the otherness of things rather than their same-
ness. The way a tiny pile of snow perches in the crook of a
branch in the tall pine, away by itself, high enough not to be
noticed by people, out of reach of stray dogs. It leans against
the scaly pine bark, busy at some existence that does not
need me.

It is the differences of objects that I love, that lift me toward
the rest of the universe, that amaze me. That each thing on
earth has its own soul, its own life, that each tree, each clod is
filled with the mud of its own star. I watch where I step and see
that the fallen leaf, old broken grass, an icy stone are placed in
exactly the right spot on the earth, carefully, royalty in their
own country.


Source: The Writer’s Almanac April 17, 2015

Tom Hennen links:

My thoughts (today):

  • Poetry?  These are paragraphs, not poetry. It is a flash essay.  Well, whatever it is, I like it. It is short and focused on a succinct image, using words like magic.  Call it poetry, call it an essay, I really enjoy this.  See my post on “Defining Poetry
  • “the otherness of things” — love it!  See my post on: “Homogenizing Reality with God
  • “busy at some existence that does not need me.”  Perfect.  See my post here on “The Glory of Insignificance
  • Soul: “That each thing on earth has its own soul …”  Of course he means something very different that the word “soul” used by theologians, but the rest of us folks feels what he means.  Reclaiming religious language is wonderful — rip it out of the gods and spooks realm and put it right back here with us and with the dirt and snow.

See more excellent poems in Sabio’s Poetry Anthology

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Language’s Components

LanguageAbove I have sketched out some of the components of language. Using this diagram, let me discuss two topics.

Learning Another Language

We all start learning new languages by learning new vocabulary. Next we may add some grammar. But a large vocabulary and rich grammar are not enough. As you can see, to really have fun in another language, there is lots more to learn which is not often in text books.

Poor accents, for instance can be the result of the learning not paying attention to rhythm, stress, and intonations which are all rule bound in languages — and vary between dialects and ideolects of that same language. Next, add gestures and posture and a native speaker may begin to understand you even better. Add rhyme, alliterations and more, and you are cruising for fluent. Finally, understand the history of a language, the etymology of words and various uses over history and your have entered the native speaker’s linguistic playground.


The action and phonology aspects of language are fantastic at communicating feeling and emotion. Written poetry, not using these two parts of language, is handicapped and poets must rely on style, rhythm and phonetics to try a make up for that loss but are inevitably susceptible to a larger degree of subjectivity — something poetry readers can deeply enjoy. Depending on its use, however, subjectivity is both a weakness and a strength in poetry.


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