Wherever languages and dialects co-exist—wherever, that is, one sees multilingualism or multidialectalism—the elements of linguistic struggle are present. In some cases, the combatants are more equally matched than in others, and sometimes there are periods of more or less peaceful co-existence. But, as we have seen, contests do arise, and one form they often take, both between and within languages, is a prescriptive or puristic stance which, given free rein, would often lead to proscription.
I have already noted that languages and dialects cannot—linguistically or aesthetically—be seen in terms of ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Rather, perceived qualitative differences rest upon social convention, which, in turn, derives from social inequalities and stratification, power and status relationships among speakers, and the ebb and flow of historical fortunes in a broad sense. But if these are views generally held by professional students of language, it is clear that they are not widespread. At the level of intralinguistic variation especially, people have very strong ideas about (for example) ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English, about ‘incorrect’ grammar and pronunciation, about allegedly deficient articulation and linguistic ‘laziness’, and about the failure of certain varieties to convey meaning adequately. At the same time, concern also exists for the ‘contamination’ of one language by another, for infiltration and borrowing, and for the bullying of small languages by larger ones; the desire to keep one’s language ‘pure’ has always been strong. In a way, both intralinguistic and interlinguistic anxieties are expressions of a larger issue, one that is powerful precisely because it possesses emotional and symbolic qualities—the relationship between language (or dialect) and individual and group identity. We are dealing, in other words, with matters of psychological import, in which linguistic specifics act as markers, badges, team jerseys.
If we look at the development of psychology itself, at least in the west, we see an historical evolution from prescription to description. Before the discipline became an independent field of enquiry, and when psychological insights were produced by philosophers, theologians and ethicists, many assessments of human nature derived from positions of faith and led to