Descriptive linguistics

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Descriptive linguistics (also descriptivism) in the broader sense (descriptive linguistics) is a synonym for modern linguistics ( linguistics ), which makes it clear that modern linguistics - contrary to the practices of most scholars and linguists in earlier centuries - individual languages , linguistic systems and language change Describes and analyzes without judgment. The term is therefore tautological insofar as all modern sciences are descriptive instead of prescriptive , that is, they do not set up rules and norms.

However, diachronic and historical considerations are often not taken into account in descriptive linguistics. The exact description of the data (observational adequacy) is given much more room in descriptive linguistics than possible explanations for the phenomena described.

In the narrower sense, descriptive linguistics is assigned to American structuralism in the tradition of L. Bloomfield .

Essential elements

Linguistic descriptions essentially contain:

  • Descriptions of the phonology of language ,
  • Descriptions or lists of the spelling of the language,
  • Descriptions of the morphology of the words,
  • Descriptions of the syntax of sentences,
  • Descriptions of lexical derivations,
  • Dictionaries with at least important entries,
  • some original texts.

Relationship to and emergence from prescriptive language descriptions

Prescriptive writings on linguistic usage are now largely rejected by scientists as unscientific, but they are very popular with the general population and even become bestsellers, such as the dative is the genitive's death (see linguistic decay and onion fish ).

Until recently, however, linguists have also published (normative) language guides and normative manuals (grammars and dictionaries), especially in the German-speaking world. Even the latest editions of German dictionaries are still mainly prescriptive and describe only a few deviations between the language actually spoken and the standard language taught in school ( standard German ). More precisely, for centuries linguistics consisted predominantly of prescriptive language descriptions. English dictionaries have been largely descriptive for a long time, although even these still contain warnings about less respected or non-standard language forms.

Modern normatively oriented work, which is nevertheless regarded as scientific, is to be understood in the sense of applied linguistics , but such work takes up little space in the academic field. With regard to normative conclusions in particular, the views here are sometimes very controversial. For example, the extent to which language criticism can and should be carried out by linguistic research at all, because it either easily incorporates a valuable norm of the use of language or often also represents social criticism at the same time, is repeatedly debated . Prescriptive work - with a few exceptions such as language development tests, which determine the language level of a child measured against a determined development norm - are largely not dealt with in academic research and teaching, but are usually created by the economic or private side.

Examples of a comparison of prescriptive and descriptive work from the same areas are as follows:

prescriptive descriptive
spelling dictionary

Psycholinguistics / Clinical Linguistics:
medical language tests

Language development research
Instructions for gender-neutral language use

Description of gender-specific language usage


  • Michael Dürr, Peter Schlobinski: Descriptive Linguistics. Basics and methods. 3rd edition, Göttingen 2006

Web links

Wiktionary: Descriptive linguistics  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations