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Six Common Myths About Language

"There was no Golden Age"

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Six Common Myths About Language

"Language Myths," edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill

(Penguin Group USA)

In the book Language Myths, edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (Penguin, 1998), a team of leading linguists set out to challenge some of the conventional wisdom about language and the way it works. Of the 21 myths or misconceptions they examined, here are six of the most common.

Myth #1: The Meanings of Words Should Not Be Allowed to Vary or Change

Peter Trudgill, now an honorary professor of sociolinguistics at the University of East Anglia in England, recounts the history of the word nice to illustrate his point that the "English language is full of words which have changed their meanings slightly or even dramatically over the centuries."

Derived from the Latin adjective nescius (meaning "not knowing" or "ignorant"), nice arrived in English around 1300 meaning "silly," "foolish," or "shy." Over the centuries, its meaning gradually changed to "fussy," then "refined," and then (by the end of the 18th century) "pleasant" and "agreeable."

Trudgill observes that "none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means. Meanings of words are shared between people--they are a kind of social contract we all agree to--otherwise communication would not be possible."

See also: Introduction to Etymology: Word Histories

Myth #2: Children Can't Speak or Write Properly Any More

Though upholding educational standards is important, says linguist James Milroy, "there is in reality nothing to suggest that today's youngsters are less competent at speaking and writing their native language than older generations of children were."

Going back to Jonathan Swift (who blamed linguistic decline on the "Licentiousness which entered with the Restoration"), Milroy notes that every generation has complained about deteriorating standards of literacy. He points out that over the past century general standards of literacy have, in fact, steadily risen.

According to the myth, there has always been "a Golden Age when children could write much better than they can now." But as Milroy concludes, "There was no Golden Age."

See also: The Endless Decline of the English Language

Myth #3: America Is Ruining the English Language

John Algeo, professor emeritus of English at the University of Georgia, demonstrates some of the ways in which Americans have contributed to changes in English vocabulary, syntax, and pronunciation. He also shows how American English has retained some of the characteristics of 16th-century English that have disappeared from present-day British.

American is not corrupt British plus barbarisms. . . . Present-day British is no closer to that earlier form than present-day American is. Indeed, in some ways present-day American is more conservative, that is, closer to the common original standard, than is present-day English.

Algeo notes that British people tend to be more aware of American innovations in language than Americans are of British ones. "The cause of that greater awareness may be a keener linguistic sensitivity on the part of the British, or a more insular anxiety and hence irritation about influences from abroad."

See also: Standard American English

Myth #4: TV Makes People Sound the Same

J. K. Chambers, a professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, counters the common view that television and other popular media are steadily diluting regional speech patterns. The media do play a role, he says, in the spread of certain words and expressions. "But at the deeper reaches of language change--sound changes and grammatical changes--the media have no significant effect at all."

According to sociolinguists, regional dialects continue to diverge from standard dialects throughout the English-speaking world. And while the media can help to popularize certain slang expressions and catch-phrases, it's pure "linguistic science fiction" to think that television has any significant effect on the way we pronounce words or put together sentences.

The biggest influence on language change, Chambers says, is not Homer Simpson or Oprah Winfrey. It is, as it always has been, face-to-face interactions with friends and colleagues: "it takes real people to make an impression."

Myth #5: Some Languages Are Spoken More Quickly Than Others

Peter Roach, now an emeritus professor of phonetics at Reading University in England, has been studying speech perception throughout his career. And what has he found out? That there's "no real difference between different languages in terms of sounds per second in normal speaking cycles."

But surely, you're saying, there's a rhythmical difference between English (which is classed as a "stress-timed" language) and, say, French or Spanish (classed as "syllable-timed"). Indeed, Roach says, "it usually seems that syllable-timed speech sounds faster than stress-timed to speakers of stress-timed languages. So Spanish, French, and Italian sound fast to English speakers, but Russian and Arabic don't."

However, different speech rhythms don't necessarily mean different speaking speeds. Studies suggest that "languages and dialects just sound faster or slower, without any physically measurable difference. The apparent speed of some languages might simply be an illusion."

Myth #6: You Shouldn't Say "It Is Me" Because "Me" Is Accusative

According to Laurie Bauer, professor of theoretical and descriptive linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, the "It is I" rule is just one example of how the rules of Latin grammar have been inappropriately forced on English.

In the 18th century, Latin was widely viewed as the language of refinement--classy and conveniently dead. As a result, a number of grammar mavens set out to transfer this prestige to English by importing and imposing various Latin grammatical rules--regardless of actual English usage and normal word patterns. One of these inappropriate rules was an insistence on using the nominative "I" after a form of the verb "to be."

Bauer argues that there's no point in avoiding normal English speech patterns--in this case, "me," not "I," after the verb. And there's no sense in imposing "the patterns of one language on another." Doing so, he says, "is like trying to make people play tennis with a golf club."

See also: Is It Wrong to End a Sentence With a Preposition?

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