Nils Langer and Winifred Davies (eds.), Linguistic purism in the Germanic languages. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2005. Pp. viii, 374. Hb $137.00
Prescriptivist attitudes toward language have always been with us, and complaints about decline and decay, about foreign infiltration, about the inadequacy of certain dialects – these matters are as perennial as misgivings about the younger generation. Within the scholarly community, there is a long tradition of studying language attitudes, supplemented recently by a revived interest in “folk linguistics” and “perceptual dialectology.” This sort of attention has generally coincided with arguments against prescriptivist intervention, on the grounds that it is neither appropriate nor feasible to attempt to direct vernacular usage. (Hohenhaus, however, in his chapter on computer communication patterns, points out that a refusal to intervene is, itself, a sort of “reverse purism.”) Historically, of course, matters were rather different in intellectual and policy circles and, indeed, prescriptivist intervention remains common: Decisions have to be made when national languages “emerge” and when some print standardization is found necessary; debates about identity choice and maintenance are often argued in linguistic arenas; language-planning exercises involve some degree of control; and contemporary debate about what (if anything) ought to be done on behalf of “endangered” varieties also implies a prescriptivist attitude. As Kristine Horner points out in her chapter on Luxembourg, labels can often confuse in such broad areas of activity: What is seen as purism when directed toward “foreign” elements may be tagged as standardization when the focus is inward. In a broad sense, then, there is a great deal of information in the literature about prescriptivist attitudes and activities; when the editors suggest that “only one monograph” (by George Thomas) has so far attempted to theorize about purism, they are being a little too restrictive.