How prescriptivism can hurt understanding

Exploring language universals should be part of any introductory linguistics course and, as more and more people are taking such a course to fulfill requirements, we want to be sure they are as open as possible to the science. A typical feature of language that linguistically naïve persons can understand is the use of the pronoun ‘you’ in the singular and the plural. Most languages distinguish you singular and you plural. In fl classes, this concept is often difficult to get across, esp when the situation is complicated, as it is in Spanish, or even when it is simple, as in French or Russian. Urdu gets more complicated than Spanish.
So being able to discuss this feature would include the fact that while English lost the distinction, it nevertheless has tried to fill in what very well may be a slot found in most languages and possibly universal: the second person plural slot. However, the attempts to fill it in with “you all”, “you guys”, “you people”, “you ‘uns”, and the ever popular “all y’all”, have been met with dismissive attitudes of correctness and condemnation. I would not argue with telling students, esp foreigners, that the listed colloquial usages are not formal, perhaps even that they are frowned upon by the proper sort of people, but to dismiss the usages is to miss the point, the evidence, that the language is attempting to fill in that slot.
That would make an interesting project for the class, to imagine what might happen over the years with that pronoun slot. Cross-linguistic comparisons could get complicated. But such intriguing assignments cannot be effected as long as students dismiss out of hand such usages b/c their prescriptivist mentors have told them such usages are not to be considered “part of the language”.
Let me hasten to add that I am sure most teachers have no problems telling students the truth: that those forms are not to be used in formal writing or speaking. But, sad to say, I have seen many teachers who delight in ridiculing colloquial and non-standard usages, challenging students, as such teachers would put it, to always speak in formal English differing not a whit from the written form of the language.

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