Monday, October 10, 2011

10 Myths About Language

Robert Lane Greene, author of You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Power of Words, reveals 10 myths about language.

1. In English, there are always clear rules; violate them and you’re wrong.

Who says? English has no committee that sets the rules; it never has. (France does, by contrast. More on them below.) The “rules” are frequently laid down in books intended to be authoritative; such books have often perpetuated non-rules that have been violated by great writers and speakers throughout history. The test of whether a rule is a Rule is not whether your English teacher told you so. It’s whether the body of speakers and writers observe it, establishing it as the de facto spoken and written standard by their use of English, not by their proclamations about rules.

2. You can’t end a sentence in a preposition.

And you can’t split an infinitive. And you can’t begin a sentence with “and”. And “none” must always take a singular verb. And it’s “It is he”, not “It’s him.” These and many more are in the category above: rules that have been called authoritative and inviolable, but which are nothing of the kind. Observe them if you like—they are markers of the most formal kind of prose. But they aren’t always observed even in writing, and broken constantly in speech. If someone knocks on a door, and that person’s spouse asks “who is it?”, almost nobody answers “It is I.” If breaking a rule feels natural and the “rule” feels awkward, there’s a reason for that. Such rules are foreign or artificial grafts onto real English.

3. The structure of a language tells you about a culture and how it thinks.

Handle with caution any claim like this. Links between thought and speech are tenuous and difficult to understand. Cutting-edge psychologists are researching this today, and they are finding interesting things. But supposed connections like “German is a logical language, which requires Germans to think logically” and the like are folklore, not science. The structure of a language can nudge people’s thoughts, but contra George Orwell and the theory behind Newspeak, it does not govern them. If you banned the word “freedom”, speakers would find another name for it. And human languages are alike in more ways than they are different.

4. Cultured languages like Latin or German abound in intricate grammar, while languages spoken by pre-industrial peoples are simple.

Statistically speaking, the truth is the opposite. Languages feature a lot of redundancy; verb endings and case suffixes, for example, express things that are often also clear from context. As languages spread, via conquest or migration, and pick up second-language learners, over centuries they tend to shed those endings. As a result, some of the world’s biggest languages—English and Chinese are perfect examples—lack almost any of the endings that characterize Latin (which shed many of them itself, as it became today’s Romance languages). Small languages that never spread are more likely to develop and maintain blindingly complex grammars, for the reason that almost no one learns them as a second language.

5. English has spread because it is flexible and open to new words.

This story, frequently told, reverses cause and effect. English spread on the ships of the Royal Navy and in the rucksacks of America’s G.I. Joes, and in the briefcases of many a trader from both countries. In other words, British and American political and economic power spread English. As a result, it came into contact with hundreds of languages around the world, absorbing their words along the way.

6. The Inuit have dozens of words for snow (and Arabic has hundreds of words for camels, the Maori have 30 words for “dung”, and so on.)

Such claims are rarely true, and rarely made by people who know the languages in question. If in doubt, before passing such tales on, check a dictionary of the language in question. At best, a language might have a few more words for a prominent part of its culture, like snow or camels. More often, this myth comes from the fact that languages like Inuit build long words from tiny parts as a matter of course. In English that same idea would be built from separate words. Inuit has lots of words for snow because it has an almost infinite number of possible words for everything.

7. The French disdain English words.

The French Academy does, and the French elite goes along. But from bon weekend to le mail, English words pervade the French spoken daily on the streets of Paris, to the chagrin of those elites. Words are exported from one language into another when they’re useful (expressing a concept that didn’t exist before), or when the exporting culture is a fashionable one. English is depositing words in languages around the world today, and French is no exception.

8. Bilingual kids will develop language late, and have weaker language skills.

This myth has kept many immigrant parents from teaching their kids their languages, worried that they’ll never learn the new one. How many Chinese-American kids cannot now speak one of the world’s most increasingly important languages as a result? The fact is that kids exposed daily to two languages will learn both fluently—only slightly later, perhaps with some temporary confusion, using words of one language in the other. (This is the thing that gets those immigrant parents to give up). But in the long term, the benefits vastly outweigh this minor delay. Bilinguals not only have a second language, but seemingly unrelated benefits like better executive function and later average onset of old-age dementia. Languages can train the brain.

9. Immigrant communities keep their old languages and can’t or won’t learn their host country’s.

This has become a totemic belief of those who oppose the wave of Hispanic information to America, for example. It is false; the best study of concentrated immigrant communities I have read found that 94% of immigrant children even in concentrated communities of their home language’s speakers will learn English “well” or “very well” by eighth grade (roughly age 13). Most immigrant children, as well as their parents, know that the kids need their new country’s language to succeed.

10. A country without a single national language risks falling apart, or at best being culturally divided and economically backward.

It’s true that highly multilingual countries tend to be poorer than monolingual ones on average. But not always; Switzerland, with four official languages, is one of the richest in the world, and manages its multilingualism as part of its own national identity. Canada manages a robust bilingualism. India is a sprawling democracy with a vibrant identity; English helps dozens of major language groups rub along and is helping the Indian economy grow. Much the same is true of South Africa. Bashing minority languages is too often a sign of anxiety; societal multilingualism is not only possible but carries big benefits with it.

You can read more about Robert Lane Greene at his website or his Facebook page. Follow Robert Lane Greene on Twitter: @lanegreene 

His book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Power of Words is available now in all good bookstores.

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