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Language Myths

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Alessandra Domizi

on 16 November 2014

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Transcript of Language Myths


As we saw, taking Latin as a reference point doesn't make any sense when analyzing English. Hypercorrection = as we saw in class, making mistakes by trying to be super-correct -- linguistic insecurity

Latin issue again (at the moment of the codification, Latin was the LF)

Because more logical:
different from
in opposition to
similar to
. BUT most comparison words (
similar, equal, superior
) have
as a preposition

Latin issue and hypercorrection again ("This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." Churchill)

"The real difference between these forms is stylistic; both are good English sentences in appropriate contexts." (Baurie & Trudgill: 1998: 95)

See slide 11 "Logic" + "In non-standard usage a different criterion applies: here, extra negative forms add emphasis. (Crystal: 1999: 194)
Language Myths
popular perception of some major language issues
--> prejudices/myths

The view that one variety of a language has an inherently higher value than others, and that this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. It is an authoritarian view, propounded especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and often with reference to pronunciation. The favoured variety is usually a version of the standard written language, especially as encountered in literature, or in the formal spoken language which most closely reflects literary style, and it is presented in dictionaries, grammars, and other official manuals. Those who speak and write in this variety are said to be using language "correctly"; those who do not are said to be using it "incorrectly".

Its main aim is to describe and explain the pattern of usage which are found in all varieties of the language, whether they are socially prestigious or not. The approach also recognizes the fact that language is always changing, and that there will accordingly always be variation in usage.
Linguists do not deny the social importance of the standard language
, but they do not condemn as "ugly", "incorrect", or "illogical" other dialects which do not share the same rules.
Prescriptivism VS Descriptivism
People often judge languages (consider them inferior/superior) from:

The way they sound (beautiful/ugly)
Their logical and structural properties
How easy/hard they are thought to be
Their prestige derived from the social/political/scientific/cultural functions it does or doesn't fulfill
Inherent Properties of a language
Some Languages Sound Better Than Others
by Lesley Milroy (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 94-101)
"Bad Grammar is Slovenly"
Logic and Structure
From Milroy, Crystal and from the myth
"You shouldn’t say ‘It is Me’ because ‘Me’ is accusative"
by Laurie Bauer
"Bad Grammar" Examples
Hard and Easy Languages
Prestige of a Language
Given by the Functions it Fulfills
(sciences, politics, business, literature...)
“Language Myths” edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill
“World Englishes” by Jennifer Jenkins
“The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language” by David Crystal

"Language Myths"
Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill
Collection of essays written by linguists
Aimed at a non-specialist audience
Purpose: debunk
linguistic prejudices
"All languages and dialects are complex and structured means of expression and perception, and that prejudices based on the way other people speak are akin to racism and sexism."

"The most views about the superiority of one language or dialect over another have social and historical rather than genuinely linguistic origins."

"Languages and dialects are unique and miraculous products of the human brain and human society."
L. Bauer and P. Trudgill,
Language Myths
, Penguin, London, 1998, XVII
Two Main Areas of Interest
Prejudices linked to:

Inherent Properties of a Language
Discussed in the Myth
"Italian is Beautiful, German is Ugly"
by Howard Giles and Nancy Niedzielski (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 85-92)
Popular myth
certain languages are more aesthetically pleasing than others
evoke positive emotions in hearers and more pleasing moods in speakers
examples: Italian, French VS German, Arabic

Linguistic perspective
Linguists suggest not to abandon these hypothesis, but to change the focus:
Views about the beauty of languages and dialects are built on cultural norms, pressures and social connotations rather than an inherent property of the language.
--> "pleasantness or unpleasantness of a language variety is a time-honored social convention". (Bauer & Trudgill: 2009: 88)
"linguistic self-hatred"
Example Norwich (England)
"I talk horrible"
"Linguistic insecurity"
"A term coined by the sociolinguist Labov to describe how people feel about their language variety when it is constantly denigrated, and their acceptance of the negative stereotyping of their English by the dominant native speaker community."
J. Jenkins,
World Englishes
, Routledge, Abingdon, 2009, p. 122
Baurie & Trudgill: 1998: 28/29
Popular myths:
Over time settled the belief that the structure of
is closer to that of pure, language-free thought than the structure of other languages. French has always been seen as the universal language to which all rational human beings naturally aspire.
Double negatives
are illogical because they cancel each other out (following the principles of mathematics: 'minus two minus minus two equals zero').

Linguistic perspective:
Don't the speakers of most languages consider their mother tongue to provide the most natural vehicle for their thoughts?
Linguistic structure does not necessarily follow the rules of logic and in real life we are not dealing with the rules of mathematics. We find double negations in the majority of the world's languages --> therefore looks like a natural pattern for language.

"The idea which people seem to find very hard to grasp is that
languages cannot possess good or bad qualities
: no language system can ever be shown to be clearer or more logical (or more beautiful or more ugly) than any other language system. Where differences of clarity and logic are to be found is
not in the language itself
but in the abilities of different users of the language to handle it effectively."
Discussed in the myths:
"French is a Logical Language"
by Anthony Lodge (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 23-30)
"Double Negatives are Illogical"
by Jenny Cheshire (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 113-121)
Discussed in the myths:
"Some Languages Have no Grammar"
by Winifred Bauer (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 77-84)
"Aborigines Speak a Primitive Language"
by Nicholas Evans (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 159-161)

Popular myth:
People say some languages have no grammar. E.g. Aboriginal languages
There is just one Aboriginal language.

Linguistic perspective:
People's perception of grammar is linked to the grammar of their mothertongue
Language A may have more complex systems than language B in one area and less complex systems in other areas. E.g. while it is true that words can be put in any order in Aboriginal languages, it does not indicate lack of grammar:
grammar can take many forms in different languages
If a language has no grammar, it is impossible to make mistakes when using it. But if a sentence is wrong, this breaks a rule of the language. If a language has rules, it has grammar. -->
A language without any grammar is a contradiction in terms
Aboriginal Australia has around 250 languages.
SVO argument:

French is not the only SVO language
Inversion is possible

Mon chien, je l'ai perdu

Discussed in the Myth
"Some Languages are Harder than Others"
by Lars-Gunnar Andersson (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 50-57)

Popular myth
People speak of languages as difficult or easy (in terms of learning) in some absolute sense, in terms of their own systems rather than in terms of some external perspective.

Linguistic perspective
Simplicity in some part of a language may be balanced by complexity in another part.
"Not merely a myth. In a fairly complicated way, and in certain respects, some languages are harder than others. Furthermore, there is no single scale for measuring simplicity in language; there are, at least, a handful of such scales." (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 56

--> the most immediate example that comes to our mind is the importance of the linguistic background in language learning, i.e. the closer (in terms of grammar, vocabulary...) a L2 is to your L1, the easier it is for you to learn it
Discussed in the myths:
"Some Languages are Just Not Good Enough"
by Ray Harlow (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 9-14)
"Aborigins Speak a Primitive Language"
by Nicholas Evans (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 165-166)

Popular myth:
Some languages do not fulfill a wide range of functions because they are incapable of doing so, due to an inherent fault. E.g. Aboriginal languages

Linguistic perspective:
In the Middle Ages it was widely believed that only Latin could be rich enough to discuss law, theology, medicine and science --> modern languages now considered to be rich enough (French, German and so on) were at the time considered inferior because not able to fulfill such functions. But just as they developed in time the necessary vocabulary to do so, Aboriginal languages are perfectly able to do the same: they lack many terms, but their rich grammars give them the capacity to
them when they are needed.
crucial word:
"English can discuss nuclear physics because, over the centuries, as scientific thought has developed, it has aquired the vocabulary to deal with the new developements; it has not always been there as an ihnerent feature of English. Rather, English expanded its vocabulary in a variety of ways over the centuries so as to meet the new demands being made of it."

(Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 13)
D. Crystal,
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, p. 366
In this section we are going to analyze "Language Myths" bound to the concept of prescriptivism.
A contradiction?
underlines the
social importance of the standard language
. This means he somehow
that a prescriptive concept like that of the standard language can make sense in some cases. For example, as we saw in class when discussing Milroy,
may be socially disadvantaged if they are not taught SL (
argument). It is a contradiction for a descriptivist to take such a stand?
We don't think so
, because if one denies every aspect of prescriptivism, the risk is that of becoming
prescriptivist in one's descriptivism
This may be the case in Lesley Milroy's essay "Bad Grammar is Slovenly".
Popular myth:
Some widely used linguistic forms are actually incorrect/ungrammatical --> linguistic decline
The reason why many people think so is because they take as a reference point the Latin linguistic system and the rules of logic.

Linguistic perspective:
Some of these expressions are actually widely used by educated speakers/writers and the social prejudice comes only from their association with low-status groups. We should consider what speakers actually say and not what people are supposed to say. Speakers follow the rules of MENTAL GRAMMAR = the unconscious knowledge which speakers have of their own language (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 101)
No point in referring to the Latin system or to logic (see slide 10 "Logic and Structure")
Milroy is very strict in her vision of descriptivism: while Crystal finds a way to mention some sort of compromise even in a short definition, Milroy doesn't mention any possible exception to her descriptivist rule, which leads us to think that she actually doesn't consider any --> prescriptivist descriptivism?
Top 10 complaints about grammar found in a survey of letters written to the BBC Radio 4 series English Now in 1986 --> 6 selected examples also mentioned in "Language Myths"

? You should use
after prepositions (
between you and me / *between you and I
) and
when the case is 'nominative' (
It is I / *It is me.

Split infinitives should not be used (
I want to visit the library quickly / *I want to quickly visit the library

Different(ly) should be followed by
and not by to or

A sentence should not end with a preposition (
To whom am I speaking? / *Who am I speaking to?

Pronouns should be in the accusative case when it is the object of the clause or when it follows a preposition (
That is the man whom/*who you saw

Double negatives should be avoided (
*They haven't done nothing
"The 'correct' versions were prescribed as such relatively recently in the history of the language, as part of the flurry of scholarly activity associated with the codification of the English language in the
eighteenth century
. Since the goal of
codification is to define a particular form as standard
, this process entailed intolerance of the range of choices which speakers and writers had hitherto taken for granted. In earlier centuries all these 'errors' appeared in highly sophisticated writing."
(Baurie & Trudgill: 1998: 95)
"The process of standardization has narrowed the range of socially and stylistically acceptable linguistic choices."
(Jenkins: 2009: 201)
About Codification...
Crystal: 1999: 194
Language Change
Discussed in the myths
"The Meanings of Words Should not be Allowed to Vary or Change"
by Peter Trudgill (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 1-8),
"The Media are Ruining English"
by Jean Aitchison (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 15-21),
"Children Can't Speak or Properly Anymore"
by James Milroy (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 58-64)
Popular myth
The fact that languages change the meanings of their words is unfortunate. Change in language is inherently undesirable and we should do everything we can to stop it because change can be dangerous and confusing.
Apprehension in the minds of many worthy persons that English is always about to collapse --> must be saved from destruction.
Linguistic decline (--> moral decline) especially with the use of the language by the younger generation (Good Old Days/Golden Age)

Linguistic perspective
"When is misuse not misuse? When everybody does it. The language will perhaps have lost something, but it will also have gained something. We will no longer be able to talk of misuse, even though the initial change may have occurred because of lack of knowledge of the original meaning. Words do not mean what we as individuals might wish them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean. These meanings can and do change as they are modified and negotiated in millions of everyday exchanges over the years between one speaker and another. Language change cannot be halted. Nor should the worriers feel obliged to try to halt it. Languages are self-regulating systems which can be left to take care of themselves. They are self-regulating because their speakers want to understand each other and be understood." (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 7-8)
Language Varieties
Discussed in the myths
"They Speak Really Bad English Down South and in New York City"
by Dennis R. Preston (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 139-149),
"America is Ruining the English Language"
by John Algeo (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 176-182)
Popular myth
Some varieties of a language are not as good as others

Linguistic perspective
The perception people have of a certain variety of a language is bound to the one that they have of the people who speak it.
"Varieties of a language do not actually have prestige in themselves: these varieties acquire prestige when their
have high prestige."
American VS British
Popular myth
America is ruining the English language. Many Americans think so as well --> linguistic insecurity

Linguistic perspective
"British and American started to become different when English speakers first set foot on American soil because the colonists found new things to talk about and also because they ceased to talk regularly with the people back home. The colonists changed English in their own unique way, but at the same time speakers in England were changing the language too, only in a different way from that of the colonists. Both American and British evolved in different ways from a common sixteenth-century ancestral standard.
Present-day British is no closer to that earlier from than present-day American is
." (Bauer & Trudgill: 1998: 178-179)
(Milroy J., "Language ideologies and the consequences of standardisation",
Journal of Sociolinguistics
, 5/4: 2001: 530-55)
"Recent decades have seen a major increase in the amount of
influence the two models have had on each other
, especially American on British. The influence of US
films and television
has led to a considerable passive understanding of much American English vocabulary in Britain, and some of these has turned into active use, especially among younger people. The reverse pattern is less obvious, but British films and TV programs are seen sufficiently often in the USA to mean that a grow in awareness of UK vocabulary should not be discounted." (Crystal: 1999: 306)
Bauer L. and Trudgill P.,
Language Myths
, Penguin, London, 1998

Crystal D.,
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language
, Cambridge, 1999

Jenkins J.,
World Englishes
, Routledge, Abingdon, 2009

Milroy J., "Language ideologies and the consequences of standardisation",
Journal of Sociolinguistics
, 5/4, 2001
As Crystal suggests, in
"1984" Orwell
proposes the Newspeak Dictionary, which codifies a fictional language attempting to eliminate personal thought by restricting the expressiveness of the English language. This reflects the face of
totalitarian prescriptivism
(Crystal: 1999: 367)
Full transcript