When we look at a representation of reality, we can choose to either see it as descriptive, meaning it tells us what the world is currently like, or as prescriptive, meaning it tells us how the world should be. Descriptions teach us, but they also give us room to innovate. Prescriptions can get us stuck. One place this tension shows up is in language.
In one chapter of The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, David Graeber describes his experience of learning Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar. While the language’s writing system came about in the fifteenth century, it wasn’t until the early nineteenth century that missionaries documented the rules of Malagasy grammar for the purpose of translating scripture.
Of course, the “rules” of Malagasy the missionaries recorded weren’t rules at all. They were reflections of how people spoke at that point in time, as far as outside observers could tell. Languages don’t usually come into existence when someone invents the rules for them. Instead, languages evolve and change over time as speakers make modifications or respond to new needs.
However, those early nineteenth-century records remained in place as the supposed “official” version of Malagasy. Children learned the old form of grammar in school, even as they spoke a somewhat different version of the language at home. For Graeber, learning to speak the version of Malagasy people actually understood in conversation was a challenge. Native speakers he hired would instruct him on the nineteenth-century grammatical principles, then turn and speak to each other in a whole other fashion.
When asked why they couldn’t teach him the version of the language they spoke, Graeber’s Malagasy teachers responded that they were just using slang. Asked why no one seemed to speak the official version, they said people were too lazy. Graeber writes, “Clearly the problem was that the entire population had failed to memorize their lessons properly. But what they were actually denying was the legitimacy of collective creativity, the free play of the system. ” While the official rules stayed the same over the decades, the language itself kept evolving. People assumed the fault of not speaking “proper” Malagasy lay with them, not with the outdated dictionary and grammar. They confused a description for a prescription. He writes:
It never seems to occur to anyone—until you point it out—that had the missionaries came and written their books two hundred years later, current usages would be considered the correct ones, and anyone speaking as they had two hundred years ago would themselves be assumed to be in error.
Graeber sees the same phenomenon playing out in other languages for which grammars and dictionaries only came into existence a century or two ago. Often, such languages were mostly spoken and, like Malagasy, no one made formal records until the need arose for people from elsewhere to make translations. Instead of treating those records as descriptive and outdated, those teaching the language treat them as prescriptive—despite knowing they’re not practical for everyday use.
Why don’t people talk “proper”?
So why can’t people just speak a language per the official rules? If someone has gone to all the effort of identifying and recording the rules and people received instruction on them in school, why not follow them? Why keep changing things up?
If languages didn’t evolve, it would make life a lot easier for historians looking at texts from the past. It would also simplify matters for people learning the language, for those coming from different areas, and even for speakers across generations. Yet all languages change all the time.
Graeber suggests the reason for this is because people like to play. We find it dull to speak according to the official rules of our language. We seek out novelty in our everyday lives and do whatever it takes to avoid boredom. Even if each person only plays a little bit once in a while, the results compound. Graeber explains that “this playing around will have cumulative effects.”
Languages still need conventions so people can understand each other. The higher the similarity between the versions of a language different people speak, the more they can communicate. At the same time, they cannot remain rigid. Trying to follow an unyielding set of strict rules will inevitably curtail the usefulness of a language and prevent it from developing in interesting and necessary ways. Languages need a balance: enough guidance to help everyone understand each other and provide an entry point for learners, and enough flexibility to keep updating the rules as actual usage changes.
As a result, languages call into question our idea of freedom: “It’s worth thinking about language for a moment, because one thing it reveals, probably better than any other example, is that there is a basic paradox in our very idea of freedom. On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say. ” On the other hand, no rules whatsoever mean no one can understand each other.
Languages need frameworks, but no amount of grammar classes or official dictionaries will prevent people from playing and having fun with their speech.
The dictionary is not the language
“The map is not the territory” means that any representation of reality has to be a simplification that may contain errors, become outdated, or reflect biases. Maps remove details that aren’t necessary for their intended use. Representations of complex systems may show expected behavior or ideal behavior. For example, the London Underground map doesn’t reflect the distances between stations because this information isn’t important to most commuters. If a map represented its territory without reducing anything, it would be identical to the territory and therefore would be useless. In fact, the simplest maps can be the most useful because they’re the easiest to understand and remember.
Sometimes maps are descriptive, and sometimes they’re prescriptive; often they’re a bit of both. We run into problems when we confuse one type for another and try to navigate an idealized territory or make the real territory fit an idealized image.
A language’s grammar and dictionary are a sort of map. They take a complex system—a language spoken by what could be tens of millions of people—and aim to represent it with something which is, by comparison, simple. The official rules are not the language itself, but they provide guidance for navigating it. Much like a map of a city needs periodic updates as parts are torn down, built up, renamed, destroyed, added, and so on, the official rules need updating as the language changes. Trying to learn Malagasy using grammar rules written two hundred years ago is like trying to navigate Antananarivo using a street map made two hundred years ago.
A map of a complex system, like a language, is meant to help us find our way by giving us a sense of how things looked at one point in time—it’s usually descriptive. It doesn’t necessarily tell us how that system should look, and we may run into problems if we try to make it conform to the map, ignoring the system’s own adaptive properties. Even if the cartographer never intended this, we can end up treating a map as a prescription. We try to make reality conform to the map. This is what occurs with languages. Graeber calls this the “grammar-book effect”:
People do not invent languages by writing grammars, they write grammars—at least, the first grammars to be written for any given language—by observing the tacit, largely unconscious rules that people seem to be employing when they speak. Yet once a book exists, and especially once it is employed in schoolrooms, people feel that the rules are not just descriptions of how people do talk, but prescriptions for how they should talk.
As we’ve seen, one reason the map is not the territory with language is because people feel compelled to play and experiment. When we encounter representations of systems involving people, we should keep in mind that while we may need rules for the sake of working together and understanding each other, we’re always pushing up against and reshaping those rules. We find it boring to follow a rigid prescription.
For instance, imagine some of the documents you might receive upon starting a role at a new company. Process documents showing step by step how to do the main tasks you’ll be expected to perform. But when the person you’re replacing shows you how to do those same tasks, you notice they don’t follow the listed steps at all. When you ask why, they explain that the process documents were written before they started actually carrying out those tasks, meaning they discovered more efficient ways afterward.
Why keep the process documents, then? Because for someone filling in or starting out, it might make sense to follow them. It’s the most defensible option. Once you truly know the territory and won’t change something without considering why it was there in the first place, you can play with the rules. Those documents might be useful as a description, but they’re unlikely to remain a prescription for long.
The same is true for laws. Sometimes aspects of them are just descriptive of how things are at one point in time, but we end up having to keep following them to the letter because they haven’t been updated. A law might have been written at a time when documents needed sending by letter, meaning certain delays for shipping. Now they can be sent by email. If the law hasn’t been updated, those delay allowances turn from descriptions into prescriptions. Or a law might reflect what people were permitted to do at the time, but now we assume people should have the right to do that thing even if we have new evidence it’s not the best idea. We are less likely to change laws if we persist in viewing them as prescriptive.
Descriptions of reality are practical for helping us navigate it, while also giving us room to change things. Prescriptions are helpful for giving us ways of understanding each other and providing enough structure for shared conventions, but they can also become outdated or end up limiting flexibility. When you encounter a representation of something, it’s useful to consider which parts are descriptive and which parts are prescriptive. Remember that both prescriptions and descriptions can and should change over time.
The FS team were saddened to hear of David Graeber’s passing, shortly after we completed this article. We hope his books will continue to inspire and educate new readers for many years to come.