(Preamble: this post is literally about the meaning of the word “correct” in this context, but also, of course, overlaps with the philosophy of prescriptive perspectives in the process. I hope that this is not considered off-topic, as I cannot think of a better group of people to ask. )
I do not understand the meaning of the word “correct” in this context, as I cannot think of any objective or meaningful standard that correctness could be derived from.
I understand the notion of clarity in pronunciation or grammar. Pronouncing a word such that it might easily be confused with a different word is unclear. Similarly impaired communication can occur as a result of using a word or grammatical structure in a way that is likely to be interpreted differently than intended.
But what miscommunication could occur by saying “Feb-u-ary” vs. “Feb-RU-ary” or by responding to “May I talk to Joan, please?” with “This is her,” vs. “This is she”? There is a large set of “errors” that have no seeming impact on clarity.
So, “correct,” as it is generally used, does not exclusively mean “likely to be understood.” But I don’t understand the notion of the word apart from that.
Language is a naturally evolving phenomenon. It is a brilliant social tool that began to emerge millions of years, and has been evolving in the form of verbal grammar for at least fifty millennia, and likely much longer than that. At some point very recently in development, scholars decided to document their languages, basically taking a descriptive snapshot of a moving force at a moment in time. Are these documents considered the source of what is correct? Or is there some other authority? Regardless of the source, why impose a regressive authority on an inherently progressive phenomenon?
In brainstorming, I conjured a few possible reasons.
One reason is to intentionally prevent a natural evolution of language that might lead to a divergence of tongues. By formally encouraging adherence to a linguistic standard, localized communities are in less danger (opportunity?) of evolving a divisive dialect. However, with the prevalence of television alone, I don’t think we have much to worry about there.
The second reason is to create a badge of pedigree; a way to distinguish those who have been formally educated in a set of (arbitrary?) rules from those who haven’t. Is this a worthy goal?
The third reason relates to the precision and artistry that come with mastery. A deep understanding of the nuances of different word meanings and grammatical structures can allow ideas to be communicated more precisely, and can allow the words to sing rather than simply communicate. However, this is mostly a case for learning word meanings, and doesn’t apply to unambiguous word “mispronunciations” or grammatical “errors.”
And so, I ask humbly, with a true desire to learn: what does it mean to be correct in pronunciation or grammar? If it is not the native speakers themselves, then who is the authority that can be appealed to?