Language Myths (1998) ed. by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill


Synopses of Selected Language Myths


The mind is dialectical in that one concept, the thesis, is followed by its opposite, the antithesis, which conflict and produce a higher concept, the synthesis.

                                                                       --Georg Frederick Hegel



Myth 6

Women Talk Too Much

Janet Holmes

Thesis:  Proverbs and humorous anecdotes in many languages attest to the existence of a persistent stereotype:  women talk more than men.  (Many examples given before text begins; read some in class).  Here the author raises the question:  Is there any evidence that the stereotype has any basis in fact?

Antithesis:  "Despite the widespread belief that women talk more than men, most of the available evidence suggests just the opposite.  When women and men are together, it is men who talk most."  (p.  42)  Hundreds of case studies back up this conclusion.

Synthesis:  The explanation (synthesis) that accounts for the discrepancy between the stereotype (thesis, myth) and the research cited (antithesis) is based on an analysis of the pragmatic context.  To quote our author Janet Holmes:

"Overall … women seem to use talk to develop relationships and maintain family connections and friendships more often than to make claims to status or directly influence others in public contexts."  (p. 45)

(McG:  Note that this explanation appeals to the purpose of communication, or what our web site has called `transactional' vs. `interactional' use of language.  This has to do with the E (Ends) to which language is put.)

McGinn's synthesis:  In narrow linguistic terms there should be no difference between men's and women's speech in matters of fluency or complexity of thought and expression.  But pragmatically, there are plenty of occasions where men tend to shut up and women hold center stage, and plenty of others when just the opposite occurs.  So any research into men’s and women’s speech has to take account of the social context. 


Myth 7


Some Languages Are Harder Than Others

Lars Gunnar-Anderson

Thesis:  Many people speak of languages as being easy or difficult, meaning it is easy or difficult for high school and college students and older adults to study and learn them as a foreign language.  They do NOT usually mean that their own native language is easy or difficult for them.

Antithesis:  Foreign languages are never easy for adults; they are always difficult.  Beyond that it is difficult to be scientifically precise.  Linguists have been unwilling to try to develop a global scale ranging from "easy" to "difficult".  It is probably impossible to classify whole languages anyway.  (However, as the author points out, an exception must be made for pidgins and perhaps some creoles as well.  Pidgins have no native speakers, and creoles are newly-formed  languages that developed from a mixture of existing languages.  Thus creoles--and especially pidgins--ARE simpler in all respects than other languages.)
    Linguistics teaches that every natural language is a complex system of human communication that can (and must) be analyzed in terms of several levels:  phonology, morphology, syntax, and rules of usage.  True, any level in one language might be relatively less complex than the same level in another language; for example, Hawaiian with only 13 phonemes has a simpler phonology than the Khosian languages with 156 phonemes including 78 clicks!  But most languages cluster in the middle with around 40-50 phonemes.  Similarly, languages with analytic syntax are simpler in the syntax than languages with synthetic (morpho-)syntax.  We know this because children who acquire synthetic languages always start out using analytic "baby talk".  But as emphasized in Myths 10, 13 and 19, there is no known language that is simple in EVERY respect (the only exceptions being pidgins and some creoles as noted above).

Synthesis:  The scientific points just reviewed do not actually prove that the myth is untrue.  What the science shows is that it is extremely difficult to create an absolute measure of the      complexity of whole languages.  But measures of parts (levels) of languages are possible.       Even more important, the relative complexity of whole languages can be established in the case of adults learning foreign languages.  Almost all adults find some foreign languages easier than others, and for good reason.  Thus, English and Dutch are closely related, and therefore they share in common many vocabulary words, grammatical structures, and rules of usage (including many cultural norms).  The same is not true of English and Japanese.  Therefore, it is not surprising that most English speakers would find Dutch easier than Japanese (or Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, and other non-Western languages).  Another reason is that educated adult learners of foreign languages must also master the complexities of writing systems, and some writing systems are much more complex than others.  For example, Chinese, Thai and Arabic writing systems present extreme difficulties for English-speaking (and English-writing) learners.  Thus, as Gunnar-Anderson concludes, foreign languages can indeed be relatively hard or difficult for individual language learners, depending on their cultural and linguistic background.


Myth 9

In The Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare

Michael Montgomery

Thesis:  In many parts of Appalachia the local dialect is very close to Elizabethan English as spoken around the year 1600.  This myth was formulated by outsiders, and is very is robust for two reasons:  it is romantic (hence attractive); and it is and politically useful (helps outsiders appreciate the mountain folk).

Antithesis:  But the so-called attractiveness of the myth does not make it true.  The thesis is of doubtful validity because:

a. It is vague—so much so that linguists are not interested in exploring it
b. It often cites wrong examples:  clumb and fotch and tee-toncey (`tiny’) are not actually Elizabethan.
c. It is historically wrong—Appalachians didn’t come from England at all; most were from Scotland and Northern Ireland, and also from all over Europe.
d. It is misleading—Appalachian children cannot read and understand Shakespeare any better than children from other dialect areas.

Synthesis:  Appalachian English does contain quite a few archaisms which are also found in Chaucer and Shakespeare:  holp, afeard, learn (meaning `teach’).  More than anything, however, the myth does no harm, and may even be useful because it helps outsiders appreciate these mountain folk, and not disdain them as mere hillbillies!



Myth 10

Some Languages Have No Grammar

Laurie Bauer

Thesis:  Some languages have no grammar (= title of this essay).

Antithesis:  Bauer argues from evidence that every language has complex rules of phonology, morphology, syntax, and discourse/pragmatics.  We saw some of the same arguments applied in Myth 7 (Some Languages are Harder Than Others) and Myth 13 (Aborigines speak a primitive language).  Thus, while it may be true that some languages have a relatively simper phonology or morphology, such languages always have complexities in other areas, e.g. syntax.  There is no linguistic evidence that ANY natural human language is simple in every respect:  phonology AND morphology AND syntax.  (McG:  The myth actually contradicts one of the basic slogans (assumptions) adopted in this course:  There are no primitive languages.

Synthesis:  Bauer allows that Myth 10 can perhaps be said to true in a limited and scientifically uninteresting sense:  If what is really meant is:  “Language X has no written grammar (or dictionary)" ... well, that may be so.  But this point is regarded as irrelevant by linguists, as expressed by another slogan of the course: Language is speech, not writing.  In other words, lacking a dictionary or a grammar book does not imply that there is any deficiency in the "mental grammar" carried around inside the speakers' heads.

Myth 12

Bad Grammar Is Slovenly

Lesley Milroy

Thesis:  Speakers of English make lots of errors out of laziness.

Milroy:  Lots of hue and cry about "bad grammar" in the BBC and other sources.

Three categories of bad sentence constructions are often cited:
 a)  Who am I speaking to -->  To whom …
 b)  Martha's two children are completely different to each other --> from each
 c)  I want to quickly visit the library --> … to visit the library quickly.


1. First, rationalizations used to support these prescriptions are shaky at best.  For example, arguments against (b) fail to consider that the collocation different to is supported by many other expressions headed by adjectives (superior to, equal to, and similar to).  The facts suggest that the Adj+to pattern is being generalized to embrace different to in this London dialect.  Second, prescriptive rules based on Latin grammar rules are invalid for English:  hence the "rule" against the so-called "split infinitive" in (c) is invalid for English, which often splits infinitives (remember Captain Kirk's famous directive:  To boldly go where no man has gone before).  Third, there are stylistic differences that warrant both examples in (a).  Strict adherence to the prescriptive "rule" can lead to odd results:  ??A good author needs to develop a clear sense of for whom she is writing.

2.  What is "grammar"?  Let us distinguish between prescriptive grammar, descriptive grammar, and mental grammar.  Prescriptive grammar arises from the need for standardization (Bishop Lowth, Dr. Johnson).  Descriptive grammar arises from linguist's attempts to describe the structure of any given dialect.  Mental grammar is what the speaker knows (unconsciously), and what the descriptive linguist is trying to discover and describe.

3.  Descriptive rules are very complex (much more so than prescriptive rules, in fact!), and every dialect is equally complex, even the so-called low-status dialects.  (McG:  Remember the slogan:  Everybody speaks a dialect.)

4.  (McG:  To illustrate, Milroy evokes the famous "Chomskyian hierarchy" without naming it as such:  How are yes/no questions formed in English?  This point will be explained in class.)

5.  Milroy next illustrates that a sentence like Yous wash the dishes does not arise from ignorance but from the fact that in this London dialect the plural of you (sing.) is yous.  This is simply a fact about this dialect; similar facts are found in many other languages around the world, such as German and French, which also distinguish between singular and plural pronouns.

6.  Dialectal differences are never a sign of linguistic impoverishment.  One linguist has described linguistic prescriptivism as the last open door to discrimination.

7.  Two more examples of so-called "errors":

 a)  Me and Andy went out to the park.

 b)  It's very awkward ... it's difficult mind you ... with a class of thirty odd ... occasionally with the second form ... you'll get, you know ... well, we'll we'll have ... erm ... a debate.

The broken discourse in (b) represents perfectly natural speech often observed in free conversations.

The sentence in (a) is common in unmonitored speech among the young all over the world (sometimes called "universal slang").  Educated middle-class speakers avoid the me and him constructions, but at the same time they are often  befuddled by the prescriptive rules governing the use of the personal pronouns I and me.  Consider former President Clinton, who said:  Give Al Gore and I a chance.  And Margaret Thatcher once said:  It's not for you and I to condemn the Malawi economy.

The descriptive fact is, subjective me is allowed in informal English only under conjunction.  Even Clinton would not say:  *Give I a chance.


    Consider example (b) again.  This is an actual language sample transcribed in a coffee shop in London.  It is typical of certain styles (Labov calls it "careful speech phenomenon". ).  It is not an appropriate style for written English; rather it represents an "interactive, online mode of production".  (p. 101).


(McG:  The thesis contradicts two of the basic “slogans” (assumptions) adopted in this course:  (1) Everybody speaks a dialect.  (2)  There are no primitive languages (implies there are no primitive dialects, either.))

Myth 13

Black Children are Verbally Deprived

Walt Wolfram

 Thesis:  Black children are verbally deprived (=title of essay).

Antithesis:  Black people are known for eloquence, not only in Africa but also speaking in English (Frederick Douglass, MLK, Jessie Jackson, Barbara Jordan).  Thus it is ironic that the Black culture produces eloquent people and at the same time their children are `verbally deprived’. 

Synthesis:  It is true there are different varieties of English, and that Black Vernacular English is different than SAE.  So the real issues concern dialect choice, power and prestige.  Let's face it:  Anyone speaking a non-standard dialect is going to have to learn to conform if they want to be successful in the wider society.  Why is this?

The “linguistic security” factor (Myth 17) suggests that subordinate groups tend to be looked down upon by the socially dominant group.  This (social) principle holds as a constant.  What is sad is that in order to hold on to the belief that they are socially superior, the dominant group will spin explanation after explanation, all of them misleading or downright false.

• For example, during slavery, slaves were considered by many whites to be intellectually deficient because their speech sounded so simple and unsophisticated.   BUT IN FACT, SLAVES SPEAKING THE SAME LANGUAGES WERE KEPT APART—THUS FORCING THEM TO RESORT TO USING PIDGIN ENGLISH AMONG THEMSELVES.  HEARING THIS PIDGIN ENGLISH, MANY WHITES DREW A FALSE CONCLUSION ABOUT THE SPEAKERS' INTELLECTUAL ABILITIES.

• Anatomically based explanations are just false.

• “Evidence” based on standardized tests is invalid, because the verbal parts are biased toward the dominant culture.  (see Chitling tests here)

• Grammatical differences are often evoked as evidence that AAVE 'has no grammatical rules'.  But this is patently false. (See Myth 10.)

• Other grammatical differences are used to 'prove' that users of AAVE are illogical.  This, too, is false.  (See Myth 14). 

• Shyness, or a sense of not-belonging, may also be a factor to account for why some Black children seem non-verbal in school.

According to the author, Walt Wolfram, “In challenging the myth of Black language deprivation, I am not trying to say that the language of the home and community is appropriate for the particularized and socialized uses of language in education and other kinds of public institutions.”  (p. 111)  In other words, Wolfram does NOT advocate simply teaching Ebonics in school alongside SAE.  The educational solutions are complex—and will be taken up in the eighth week of the course.

Myth 14

Double Negatives Are Illogical

Jenny Cheshire

Thesis:  Three types of “condemned” double negatives are illustrated by quotations at the head of the essay.  Each has been criticized as illogical from time to time.

1.  not untrue, not unkind (George Orwell said such expressions should be `laughed out
     of existence')

2.  You won't get nothin' for dinner … (one of top ten complaints sent in 1986 to the BBC)

3.  "It never occurred to me to doubt that your work would not advance our common object in the highest degree" --Charles Darwin. (Fowler's Guide to Good Usage cites this as an example of a "fuzzy error" that occurs when people don't know exactly how to handle negatives.)

Antithesis:  (Cheshire's best argument, which refutes the supposed illogicality of (2), appears at the end of the article):  Language usage does not always follow the rules of logic.  Linguistically it is simply not true that double negation always yields a positive.  In actual usage, multiple negatives like (2) have an additive, emphatic value, in most dialects of English, including Old English and Middle English, and in many other languages as well, such as Spanish and French.

 As for type (1) DNs, she points out that the `not un-(Adj)' type of double negatives, far from being illogical, allow the expression of subtle degrees of negation, which frees us from rigid binary yes or no judgments.

 As for type (3) DNs, she admits that these are sometimes hard to process and are limited to written styles.  But they have their place, too, and are not fuzzy--only dense.

Synthesis:  There isn’t any synthesis in this myth:  the antithesis stands without qualification.  The only possible concession is that Cheshire does acknowledge that double negatives of type (2) mark the speaker as non-standard (but certainly not as illogical !).

Myth 17

They Speak Really Bad English Down South and in New York City

By Dennis R. Preston

Thesis put succinctly:  The myth is that “some varieties of English are not as good as others.” (p. 140)  Research shows just how entrenched this myth is.  “Respondents from all over the US confirm the myth that some regions speak better English than others, and they do not hesitate to indicate that NYC and the South are on the bottom of that pile.” (p. 148).

Thesis developed further:  Michiganders marked their own area as “neutral” and other areas as “speaking incorrect English”.  The name for this perspective is “linguistic security”.  By contrast, Southerners suffer from what linguists call “linguistic insecurity” because they do NOT mark their own area as representing “correct” English, but they do regard their own dialect “the most pleasant-sounding”; and they also use it as a badge of solidarity.  But when asked to mark out the area of “correct” English they do not choose Michigan.  Rather, to mark the “best” English they tend to circle the national capital, Washington, D.C., or mention a generalized, TV-Announcer English.

Antithesis:  (McG:  Linguistics is the scientific study of language which entails studying human languages/dialects in their spoken form (because language is speech, not writing).  All the scientific evidence denies the superiority of any one language or dialect.  As there are no primitive languages, so there are no primitive dialects; and no one dialect is better than another; and besides, everyone speaks a dialect.  As in biology, so in languages and dialects:  roses and dandelions have equal value.)

Synthesis:  Preston develops the argument that society (not the science of linguistics) is what demands standardization.  This demand leads every society to make a practical choice of one dialect to serve as the standard for the whole nation.  But one that step is taken, it does not justify the rationalization of that choice as the “best” dialect, nor to promote outright prejudice against the dialects of certain groups of citizens.

Myth 19

Aborigines Speak a Primitive Language

Nicholas Evans

Thesis:  Australian aborigines speak a language so primitive that it has a limited vocabulary of no more than 500 words, and no grammar at all.  Living in the stone age, they lacked a written language

Antithesis:  No natural human language on earth has ever been found that is  “primitive” in any linguistic sense.  All languages are structured similarly:  phonological, morphological, and syntactic systems designed to express an infinity of messages of great subtlety and range.  The aboriginal languages of Australia are no exception.  Their spoken languages are as complete as French or Russian, including a vast oral literature, a complex system of religious beliefs, and a rich vocabulary expressing wide knowledge of the Australian  natural world.  These facts have been proven repeatedly after over one hundred years of linguistic and anthropological research.  Moreover, modern Aboriginal languages are rapidly developing new vocabulary and concepts to deal with the twentieth century.  In this they are no different than English, which is always readily creating, adopting, or borrowing words to refer to new social events and technological innovations.  (McG:  Two assumptions are important here:  (a)  Language is speech, not writing; (b)  There are no primitive languages.

Synthesis:  Evans does not offer any synthesis, so strongly does he disagree with the tenor of this harmful myth.  (McG:  In order to understand the linguistic points that Evans is making, it is probably helpful to make one concession.  One can and should admit that militarily, economically, and politically the Australian aborigines had far simpler social systems than the Europeans that “discovered” them in the seventeenth century.  For example, the Europeans had ships and guns which the aborigines lacked, nor did they have a strong central government.  However, the aborigines’ social structures were well adapted to the environment they lived in for 40,000 years before the arrival of Europeans.)

Myth 20

Everyone Has An Accent Except Me

John H. Esling

Thesis:  Everyone who speaks differently than I do has an accent, and everyone who speaks like me does not have an accent.

Many mid-Westerners believe that their own speech lacks distinguishing features of any kind.  (See Myth 17 for some negative consequences of this belief.)  They enjoy `linguistic security’, in contrast to others who realize their dialect is unique suffer `linguistic insecurity’.  The attitude of the `secure’ group is like the fish who was surprised to learn he was swimming in water.  He didn’t realize it until he was removed from the safety and comfort of his natural environment.

Antithesis:  The fact is that everyone has an accent.  It tells other people who we are and where we have been.  (p. 169)   This fact follows from our slogan:  `Everybody speaks a dialect’.

Synthesis:  The author, John H. Esling, acknowledges that many people strive to change their accent.  Therefore, we must admit on some level that there exist dialects that are more desirable and dialects that are less desirable. 

He mentions the story of Eliza Dolittle and Professor Henry Higgins in the movie My Fair Lady (based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion).  But linguistically speaking, we would not say that Eliza was learning a "better" dialect; rather, she was learning the dialect of upper-crust British society in order to "better herself" socially.

Myth 21

America Is Ruining the English Language

John Algeo

Thesis:  America is ruining the English language (= title of essay).

1.  You hear this one all the time—but is it true?

2.  The British used to say it during colonial times (e.g. complained about the new word bluff  `steep bank’), and sometimes still do.  For example, in 1995 Prince Charles complained in the newspaper that American English is “very corrupting.”

3.  An interesting case of “blaming us for everything” arose when a recent change in Britain for the word conTROVversy was blamed on America, when in fact this pronunciation is unknown in the U.S.

Antithesis:  “Change in language is inevitable, just as it is in every other aspect of reality. ... We don’t have to like particular changes … but a language or anything else that ceases to change is dead.”  (Algeo, p. 178).

But is every change a degeneration?  Many changes are actually improvements, such as the word bluff—because this geographic feature abounds in the U.S. but is practically unknown in England.  Besides, the British have invented new forms, too.  The following Act Sequence occurs often in British speech—especially films and television.  It is slightly rude but gets the point across in a way that Americans readily understand, but would never use.

                             A:  “Is the tea ready?”
                             B:  “The water has to boil, doesn’t it?”

So it's not just American English that is changing!  In certain respects American English is actually more conservative than British English.  Here are some examples:

a. retention of post-vocalic -r in words like more, mother in most American dialects

b. retention of four syllables with secondary stress on the 'a' of -ary in words like secretary and dictionary

c. retention of the word guess meaning `think, suppose’

d. retention of gotten and got with different meanings (Am:  'I have gotten a cold/I have got a cold'' vs. Brit: I have got a cold.  (British English has lost the word gotten)

e. retention of subjunctive in `mandative’ expressions:  (Am:  'We insisted that he leave' vs.  Brit: 'We insisted that he should leave').

But of course, American English itself has innovated many features, and will continue to do so.  The following features are characteristic of the speech of practically all Americans for whom English is their native language.

a. Most Americans rhyme callous and Alice

b. Most Americans have merged the vowels in father and fodder

c. Americans no longer use the word reckon `think’ (sounds old-fashioned to us).

d. Americans no longer use the word fortnight ('period of two weeks')

e. Americans changed the meaning of the word corn to mean only `maize’ (whereas in England the word corn means `grain’).

f. Americans say:  Do you have the time? (or Have you got the time?) vs. British:  Have you the time?  (cf.  Black sheep, black sheep, have you any wool?)  (Anecdote:  An American teacher in Singapore was criticized for saying "I already ate" by speakers of British English who prefer "I have eaten.")

g. Americans say fond of vs. Brits:  keen on

Synthesis:  When all the evidence is examined, both varieties of English have changed somewhat, and both are conservative to a certain degree.  Which dialect is the more conservative depends on which linguistic features are under discussion.  What is undeniable is that the Brits tend to be more aware of `Americanisms' than Americans are of `Briticisms'. (p.  181 bottom).

Last paragraph:  nice use of irony by Algeo:  “Is America the ruination of English?  Certainly, ... if what John Adams foresaw was ruination!”