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Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: taboo and purism

Abstract

This paper explores popular perceptions of language, in particular linguistic prescription. It focuses not on formal acts of censorship such as might be carried out by a language academy, but on the attitudes and activities of ordinary people in, say, letters to newspapers or comments on radio. In these contexts, language users act as self-appointed censors and take it upon themselves to condemn those words and constructions that they feel do not measure up to the standards they perceive should hold sway.

People's concerns about language and the kind of linguistic censorship and puristic activities that accompany them belong to our tabooing behaviour generally. Prescriptive practices are part of the human struggle to control unruly nature – in this case, to define language and to force the reality of ‘the boundless chaos of a living speech’ (as Samuel Johnson put it in his Preface) into neat classificatory systems. As with tabooing practices generally, linguistic purists see a very clear distinction between what is clean and what is dirty – in this case, what is desirable and undesirable in a language. Linguists who challenge these prescriptions are challenging their ‘cherished classifications’. Small wonder there is often such a schism between linguistics and the wider community.

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English Today
  • ISSN: 0266-0784
  • EISSN: 1474-0567
  • URL: /core/journals/english-today
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