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Often we are hearing that such-and-such spelling, phraseology, etc is incorrect. Person X made a grammar error, pronunciation error, orthography error, styling error, other sorts of language error.

I'm not sure if I understand this.

Superficially, it would seem to me that linguists are there to study a language and not to create it. The language was created a long time ago by our forefathers; and is constantly being re-created and modified by those who speak it.

Linguists may decide and announce that such-and-such spelling is correct while such-and-such spelling is a common error; but the very phrase 'common error' seems to me to be self-refuting. If it's common then it means people speak and write in this way; and if this is how people speak and write then this is how the language is being spoken so this is the language. The linguists may resort to arguments from the language's history (eg "such-and-such form has never been used for this purpose"), but the language is an evolving structure rather than a static one.

Ultimately, it would seem to me, if people decide to speak or write in any given way (that is if an error is common), the linguists may declare such use of the language incorrect but this will only lead to the typical map vs territory issue. Worst case, the linguists are ignored; best case, the language diverges into its "as the linguists see fit" variation, spoken by very few people, and its "as people actually speak" variation. Typically, however, the linguists will have to back off eventually.

Note that I would exclude non-native speakers from the body of all people speaking any given language and collectively deciding about its features (although it's kind of interesting to watch how non-native English speakers mangle English - do we already observe the birth of a yet another English variation - Broken English - natively spoken by non-native speakers?)

And still I must be incorrect because it is commonly accepted to correct native speakers' common errors regarding their use of their language.

What am I missing here?

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    What you're missing is that almost all language prescribers are not linguists. – curiousdannii Sep 8 '19 at 11:30
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    Linguists cannot and do not decide which use of language is correct and which is not, unless you're talking about some unusual definition of "linguists", so it's impossible to answer "why". Consider, for example, what the Linguistic Society of America has to say: linguisticsociety.org/resource/what-correct-language – Nardog Sep 8 '19 at 12:50
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    What's with the downvotes? This is an extremely important question! – OmarL Sep 8 '19 at 14:53
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    To the close-voters: I wouldn't call this "primarily opinion-based". There's a pretty definite consensus on prescriptivism vs descriptivism by now. – Draconis Sep 8 '19 at 17:41
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Often we are hearing that such-and-such spelling, phraseology, etc is incorrect. Person X made a grammar error, pronunciation error, orthography error, styling error, other sorts of language error.

Yes, indeed! Linguists do spend a lot of time figuring out what things are correct and what things are incorrect. But how exactly do we figure that out? There are two fundamental approaches.

Superficially, it would seem to me that linguists are there to study a language and not to create it. The language was created a long time ago by our forefathers; and is constantly being re-created and modified by those who speak it.

This is called the descriptivist view: that linguists study what already exists, but don't (and shouldn't, and usually can't) change it in the process. I'd say probably about 90% of modern linguists fall into this camp. (I, personally, do.)

Descriptivists say that something is "correct" (more often grammatical) if and only if a consensus of competent native speakers accepts it as grammatical. In other words, language is defined by the consensus of the speakers of that language, rather than by any central authority.

The opposite is called the prescriptivist view: that linguists can change the territory to make their maps prettier. There are many, many prescriptivists out there in the world—think of the people who call themselves "grammar nazis", or the people who claim using "literally" as an intensifier is literally like 1984, or the people making a fuss about singular "they". But most of them aren't actually linguists (in the sense of scientifically researching and studying language).

…the linguists may declare such use of the language incorrect but this will only lead to the typical map vs territory issue. Worst case, the linguists are ignored; best case, the language diverges into its "as the linguists see fit" variation, spoken by very few people, and its "as people actually speak" variation. Typically, however, the linguists will have to back off eventually.

Indeed; historically, this is what usually happens to prescriptivists.

There are a few very notable counterexamples: look into "language planning", for example, where linguists promote prescriptive rules in order to preserve or revive an endangered language (that would otherwise get amalgamated and absorbed by a different language). Modern Hebrew, for example, wouldn't exist if not for language planners inventing hundreds of new words and dozens of new constructions to bring it back from the grave. But once the language can stand on its own again, as you put it, "the linguists will have to back off eventually"—Modern Hebrew now has a thriving speech community that has more influence than any central authority.


P.S.

(although it's kind of interesting to watch how non-native English speakers mangle English - do we already observe the birth of a yet another English variation - Broken English - natively spoken by non-native speakers?)

Usually, one of three things happens.

  • The learners pick up "standard" English and become part of the surrounding English-speaking community.
  • The learners pick up "standard" English but fuse it with influences from their native language, creating a new dialect or a new speech community (e.g. Indian English, the version of English widely-spoken in India, which has diverged quite heavily from British and American English).
  • The learners combine broken English with a broken version of their native language, creating a rudimentary "pidgin" in order to communicate with English-speakers. If children then grow up speaking this pidgin, they tend to smooth down the rough edges, fill out any places where the grammar is lacking, and turn it into a fully-fledged language called a "creole".

The first of these is the most common, but the last is the most linguistically interesting, and tends to be heavily studied whenever it happens.

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  • Lets's point out that english is quite special with no country having the authority over it. In many countries there are binding dictionaries and grammar/orthography books which textbooks and teachers must follow. Like Slovník spisovné češtiny pro školu a veřejnost and Pravidla českého pravopisu authored by the Institute for the Czech language of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Others, like newspapers and book correctors, then choose to follow these as well and it is hard for the authors to persuade them to make any deviation. – Vladimir F Sep 8 '19 at 19:29
  • In Czech, where the Common Czech dialect, native to most people and used in common situations, differs substantially from the Standard Czech which was created quite artifficially partially from the language of Kralická Bible (cca 1600). That means that many grammatical features are commonly used when speaking, but not allowed in the Standard language and considered as big errors and laughed at. Teachers for foreigners have to explain why they can't use the stuff they hear daily. The people from th eInstitute have the power the make some of those features standard .. or not. – Vladimir F Sep 8 '19 at 19:35
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    @VladimirF True! But I'd argue that those standards still don't have much power over how people actually speak. No matter what the Czech Academy of Sciences decrees, people are still going to speak Common Czech in informal situations, and it'll continue to evolve. – Draconis Sep 8 '19 at 20:27
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    Even if prescriptivism has a role in how people end up speaking, a descriptivist should just... you know, describe that process taking place. Just as they describe how in certain circles, an expression or form may be frowned upon while in others it will be acceptable: you describe registers, and you describe the situations where people seem to find or not find each of them appropriate. People are acting "prescriptively" you could say, in their reactions, but that's okay... descriptivism is there to explain what's taking place. – LjL Sep 8 '19 at 21:40
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    Though I must say the whole "prescriptivist/descriptivist" nonsense is just that. There is no "prescriptivist linguistics"; there are merely many many individual peevers with individual opinions and specious "rules" that "explain" them. There is, however, real linguistics, and it is uniformly descriptive. Even putting the two together gives a misleading authority to what is simply class prejudice. – jlawler Sep 9 '19 at 2:23

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