Linguistic myth-busting

July 3, 2006

Stop, collaborate and listen! Linguistlist is a free resource which I’ve used frequently in my postgraduate studies, and very occasionally it turns up something that’s potentially interesting to the layman. Like this story about dispelling some popular language myths:

Linguistics, Anybody?
(via linguistlist)

The idea that language is “getting worse” or that it is somehow being corrupted from its “true form” is typically associated with some idea of a “golden age” where everyone was polite and spoke “properly”. It also often correlates with a negative attitude towards whatever is the latest fad: TV, internet, videogames or texting (SMS messaging). And then there’s the kids: It’s usually the perceived laziness and poor education of teenagers (and/or the lower classes) which is seen as responsible for language standards being “worse than they were in my day”.

There are a couple of responses to this misguided view. First, language changes. It always has done and it always will: this is axiomatic. Sure, there will always be people — like Jonathan Swift — who see it as their duty to stop change from happening, but you can’t stop the tide. Just look at the writing style and lexis in Swift’s “Proposal…”, for example: constructions like “some few” seem awkward today, yet they were quite standard when Swift was writing.

Second, the idea that language is somehow “getting worse” begs the question “worse at what?” or “worse in what way?”. If you believe — as many do — that language is for communication, then the logical conclusion is that people who speak “poor English” are not able to communicate their ideas as effectively or with the same nuance or subtlety as others. And the implied argument is that, one day, if we let this disgraceful slip in standards continue, we may all be reduced to speaking like savages! For shame!

This is utter rubbish of course. If language change is inevitable, it is equally inevitable that people will always want to communicate. It’s in our nature. What those who advocate linguistic preservation often fail to recognize is that the groups they chastise for dragging standards down have invariably created a new code that is an order of magnitude more effective than the standard one for their situation. I’m thinking of text-speak in particular here. Much as we might bemoan the rise of “r u ok?”, “c u l8r” and “lol”, you can’t deny it is an astonishingly efficient way of communicating with limited characters on a small screen. The other amazing thing about it is that no one taught people how to do this: the kids made it up on their own when confronted with a situation which potentially limits their capacity to talk to each other. Why would they do that if they weren’t primarily concerned with effective and efficient communication amongst their peers?

Of course there must be different standards for different communicative situations. I’ve marked several undergraduate essays down for including txt-ish when it wasn’t appropriate. But, as far as I’m concerned, viewing language change as inevitable doesn’t necessarily commit you to an “anything goes, anytime” policy. Text-speak is not as effective at communicating in an academic context. Simple as that, lol.

So why are all these myths about language so common? The linked article suggests it may be because linguistics simply isn’t taught in schools. I’d have to agree. Where it is taught — at least in the UK — it’s usually part of the rather nebulous subject “English Language”, which is often seen as the easy option in high school. I seem to remember that’s why I chose it at A-level (it’s all about writing stories, innit?).

But there’s much more to linguistics than analysing the language of adverts or knowing the difference between a noun and a verb (and, judging by some of the students I’ve taught over the last few years, even that topic isn’t covered any more). And you don’t have to speak more than one language to study linguistics: trust me, I should know!

Linguistics needs to be part of the basic school cirriculum at the very least to stop these kinds of myths from perpetuating. What’s more, it’ll help when students who come to university know the difference between a subject and a direct object. Syntax ftw!

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