Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

What are linguists good for? An introduction to critical linguistics

If I were to describe my profesional self as a person who studies language, I wonder how useful such a description would sound. People don’t need linguists to communicate, write novels and poems or learn languages. So what are linguists good for? I will try to give an answer to this question, gradually making the argument for critical linguistics: an approach to engaging with language in ways that foreground its social role. But first, you will need to indulge me for a few paragraphs as I make a historical digression.

Linguistics as ‘academic hooliganism’

Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845-1929)

Back in 1903, Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, professor of Linguistics at the University of St. Petersburg, was assigned a prestigious and important task. Vladimir Dal’s respected Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Russian Language, originally published in 1863, was beginning to look dated. The professor, an eminent Slavist and respected theoretical linguist, seemed like the right person to bring it up to date.

What very few people expected, however, was that Baudouin would take an inclusive approach to editing the dictionary. When looking for words, he didn’t just consult the literary canon; he also scavenged through newspaper content. Somewhat more controversially, he seemed keen (maybe even enthusiastic?) to insert into the dictionary words that future readers would describe as ‘indecent’. [1] Even more controversially, he did not shy away from giving candid definitions for bureaucrats (kokardnik, concard-bearers) or the “Black Hundreds” (Чёрная сотня) pro-monarchist Russocentric militia.

(credit to Farina & Durman 2012)

The authorities were not amused. The Ministry of the Interior, which was responsible for censoring publications in Imperial Russia, recommended producing only a few copies of the book, for the exclusive use of scholars, and publishing a redacted version for the general public. [2] Enraged readers wrote to newsapers decrying “the hooligan-editor Baudouin de Courtenay” (Farina & Durman, 2012: 27). The Ministry of Education, an entity as open-minded as their counterparts in contemporary Greece, went a step further: They ordered public libraries and schools to remove all copies of the revised edition from their collections. Back then, just as today, small-minded people were afraid of books.

The truth is, I always enjoy telling stories about Baudouin, not least because he was awesome, but this particular story has a point: it invites reflection about what the purpose of linguistics might be. Is it about giving people guidance so that they can speak and write properly, or about describing all language in a detached, objective way? Or could it be something different entirely?

So, what are linguists good for?

Prescriptive linguistics

It is a common belief that linguistics is a prescriptive discipline. People who believe that linguistics is prescriptive think that linguists should engage in “conscious and explicit efforts to regulate the language of others” (Curzan, 2014: 17). This belief builds on the idea that some varieties of language are inherently better than others. Thereore, the thinking goes, the entire speech community should conform to those (Crystal, 2010: 2). Linguistic prescriptivism is a fairly common practice: lots of teachers, journalists, and angry people on the internet have strong views about linguistic correctness, and about how sloppy use and permissive attitudes degrade language. Such people will tend to see linguists as the ultimate arbiters of ‘correct’ usage, and the people who asked Baudouin to publish a dictionary likely had this kind of linguistics in mind.

Linguistics, however, is not a prescriptive science, and there are good reasons for this. A prescriptive perspective can only produce an understanding of language that is limited and limiting. Such an understanding would not see beyond the limits of the variety that Randolph Quirk (1985) described, with bizarre admiration, as the “single monochrome standard”. In doing so, it would miss out on two of the most interesting properties of language: its diversity and its ability to adjust to context. Moreover, the rules and prohibitions usually associated with prescriptive grammar are unenforceable and –frankly– futile.

Prescriptive linguistics can only produce an understanding of language that is limited as it is limiting.

It is unlikely that we will ever reach a satisfactory resolution to debates about the place and utility of linguistic prescriptivism in education. However, from a scientific perspective, prescriptivism is theoretically flawed. Its fundamental problem is a reification of language, a belief that language somehow exists in a pure, abstract form. But language cannot exist independently of its users, because it is an emergent phenomenon that we constantly re-create through use.

Descriptive linguistics

The polar opposite of linguistic prescriptivism is descriptive linguistics. This is often associated with a detached attitude, according to which linguists should refrain from anything more than documenting language phenomena that they hear. Put simply, descriptive linguists see it as their task to produce a grammar of the language that is as accurate as possible, and a dictionary that is as complete as possible. Even if it includes the kind of words that one would not say in polite company.

Such a laissez parler attitude compares favourably to prescriptivism. Desciptive linguists pride themselves, and rightly so, in their ability to detach linguistic work from unhelpful attitudes, and on disassociating usage from stigma. This work has helped to draw attention from classical languages to vernaculars, and to showcase the richness of dialectal diversity. Done properly, it helps us to better understand how minoritised and invisibilised communities define themselves linguistically. It gives insights about how borders between linguistic communities are formed and trasngressed, and more.

What is perhaps less helpful is the somewhat naïve idea that descriptive linguistics is a socially neutral endeavour. Everything, from the selection of our informants, to the phenomena we choose to study, to the way we categorise data, is a product of decisions that we cannot disassociate from our underlying system of beliefs and attitudes. When Baudoin described the “Black Hundreds” as a militia “which allegedly defends the existing order, organizes pogroms, and has as its goal the destruction of Jews, members of the intelligentsia and all free-thinking elements of society”, his definition was shaped by his perspective of the world, and reflected a personal understanding of right and wrong. But so would a definition that described them merely as “Romanov-affiliated political activists” or without mentioning their role in organising pogroms. The way we do linguistics is shaped by social forces in which we are embedded, and has social effects.

Linguistics is shaped by social forces and has social effects

Ideological intrusions on description

An example may help to clarify what I mean. While allegedly “neutral”, descriptive linguistics often connects with the ethnogenetic processes, i.e., the birth and building of nations. This seems perfectly uncontroversial: when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one group of people to sever the links that tie them to another, they will look among themselves for the attributes that make them different from the peoples who surround them.

Cigarette boxes with nearly identical health warnings in Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian.
Health warnings in three languages

Up until the 1990s, most people who lived in what was then Yugoslavia were happy to call their language Serbo-croatian. This doesn’t mean that they were unaware of regional variation in the language. It just means that they felt these differences were less important than the features that their language had in common. This is not unlike the way many speakers of English feel about British, American and Australian varieties of their common language.

Around the time of the Yugoslav wars however, people became less happy to foreground similarity and to overlook differences, and began to refer to their languages as Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Bosnian. A lot of linguistic work has taken place since then to describe these languages, now viewed as distinct. [3] This linguistic work, and the language and education policy it informed, has consolidated the view that these four languages are separate. However complete, solid or rigorous, such work cannot be described as “objective” or “neutral”.

The point I am making is not that politically disinterested linguistics is “bad”, whereas and socially engaged linguistics is “good”: I am happy to concede that Baudoin’s description of the Black Hundreds was lexicographically suboptimal (Farina & Durman, 2012, p. 19), and I am aware of excellent descriptive work that steers clear of thorny political and social issues. What I am arguing is that there are more than one ways to describe the same sets of linguistic facts. Our political, epistemological and ethical perspectives are bound to mediate the description that we eventually end up making. Even as we try to avoid interfering with language, we insert ourselves in the descriptions we make. Awareness of this overlap is what gives rise to a third way of engaging with language, critical linguistics.

Critical linguistics

Prescriptive linguists generally try to conserve a state of the language, by claiming that their preferred variety is ‘better’. Descriptive linguists, at least those who subscribe to ‘naïve realist’ understandings of science, generally try to conserve a political, epistemological and ethical viewpoint by excluding if from scrutiny and pretending that it is the natural, or only, way of making meaning. Despite looking like polar opposites, both attitudes can be similarly disempowering and conservative.

This brings us to a third way of approaching language: through critical analysis. Critical linguistics involves not just describing language, but also connecting it to the social phenomena that it encodes. Alastair Pennycook (2022) describes this perspective as follows:

While the sense of critical thinking [as] a set of thinking skills attempts almost by definition to remain isolated from political questions, from issues of power, disparity, difference, or desire, the sense of critical that I want to make central to critical applied linguistics is one that takes these as the sine qua non of our work. Critical applied linguistics is not about developing a set of skills that will make the ding of applied linguistics more rigorous or more objective but is about making applied linguistics more politically accountable.

This is not to downplay valid concerns that people, such as Henry Widdowson (2003) have voiced about blurring the lines between politics and scholarship on language. What critical linguistics should do is, in fact, bring these lines into sharp relief. There is certainly value in describing the differences between languages, but there is also a need to discuss why these features are different. Similarly, it is impossible to disentangle work on minority languages from the study of the raciolinguistic forces that minoritized these languages, or from advocacy work to challenge them. It seems hard to argue for a study of increasingly visible gendered and queer language which does not at the same time challenge normative assumptions about gender and sexuality.

As the givens of the past are giving way to an era of ‘post-certainty’, there is an urgent mandate for linguistics to question what seems natural. This involves ask ourselves why – out of all possible ways to produce language – certain ones seem more common or more preferrable, and what their effects are. It also involves looking inside ourselves and reflexively questioning how our politics, epistemology and ethics shape our understandings. Perhaps most importantly it involves imagining ethical alternatives, and developing what has been described, outside linguistics, as ‘educated hope’.

In lieu of a conclusion

In the forward of his revised edition of the Dal’s dictionary, Baudouin de Courtenay likens the linguists’ burden to that of diamond miners. He talked about the need to strive and struggle, to get dirty, and take risks, in order to eventually share treasures that are not easy to find. I think he would approve of extending his metaphor: if linguistics is to produce the kind of work that can leverage an understanding of language to produce social change, then it requires confronting difficult questions of access, power, difference, acceptance and resistance.


  1. ^ There’s an amusing anecdote said about how Baudouin responded to critics: When accused of degrading the nobility of the Russian language by inserting the word ‘ass’ in the dictionary, Baudouin (whose family tree included King Louis VI of France, several Kings of Jerusalem and the last Latin Emperor of Constantinople), replied: “I doubt that anyone would think less of my noble family, if you were to point out that I have a жопа, which indeed I have. I don’t see how people might think Russian is less noble if I draw attention to the fact that it, too, has one of those”.
  2. ^ It is likely that they were even less amused by Baudouin’s definition of “ass” as “the part of anatomy that is no longer subject to corporal punishment in France”. His definitions of “patriot” and “parasite” were even more provocative.
  3. ^ Over time, the distance between these languages has widened, partly because of less frequent contact between the communities and partly due to the ‘cleansing’ of the languages from foreign forms. This does not weaken the point that is being made here.

Picture of Achilleas Kostoulas

Achilleas Kostoulas

Achilleas Kostoulas is an applied linguist and language teacher educator. He teaches applied linguistics and language education courses at the Department of Primary Education at the University of Thessaly, Greece. Previous academic affiliations include the University of Graz, Austria, and the University of Manchester, UK.


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