A Look at Myths About Language

Like all the things that mean a lot to us, we’ve accumulated a bumper crop of myths about language in our culture… let’s talk about a few

Myths about language provide us with plenty of crazy ideas, like the concept that sign language isn’t really a language at all, or that Chinese is almost impossible for an English speaker to learn. Of course, any deaf person or Sinophile would be happy to argue with you about these particular misconceptions.

And these are just a few of the simple myths; there are plenty of more persistent ones out there. Care to learn about a few? If so, read on, and we’ll try to shine the light of knowledge on the dusty cobwebs of myth in four specific cases.

Myth 1: Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow

This old myth about language can be found in all sorts of places, from serious textbooks to email lists, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Eskimo languages do have about two-dozen root words for different kinds of snow, but most so-called words for snow in the Inuit and Yup’ik tongues are actually descriptive terms.

That is, they’re compound words words like “snowbound” or “snowshoe” or “snowstorm,” or explanatory words like flurry, flake, drift, blizzard, powder, etc. Count up the number of English terms including the term “snow” or describing snow, and you’ll get hundreds there, too.

Myth 2: Some languages are more primitive than others

The truth or falsity of this myth about language depends on whom you ask and what you mean by primitive. True, there are some languages, like Khmer, that offer no discernable differences between tenses — until you take into account the social positions and genders of the speakers.

Similarly, languages with clicks and glottal stops, like !Kung or Tzotzil Mayan, may seem weirdly primitive to us — as may Polynesian tongues, which include glottal stops and few individual phonemes (verbal sounds). However, all these languages are rich in both meaning and context, just like English or Spanish.

Myth 3: Those bloody Americans are ruining our language

According to many philologists, this myth about language is way off base. American English is usually considered closer to the version of the language that people on both sides of the Atlantic spoke back in Colonial days. Each branch of English has evolved in its own separate way, as one might expect.

Part of the British distrust of American linguistic evolution may be based on the fact that they’re more aware of our neologisms than we are of theirs. This can, according to some philologists, generate a low-level anxiety that results in the oft-repeated claim that we Yanks are butchering the Queen’s English.

Myth 4: Both spoken and written language are deteriorating in quality

Observers have been claiming that people just don’t write or speak properly anymore for centuries; Jonathan Swift, for example, bemoaned the decline of literacy back in the 1600s. But languages evolve over time, so what one person sees as deterioration others may see as natural change. There’s no evidence that this myth about language is any truer now than it was 400 years ago.

And there you have it! 4 myths about language you can stop talking about!