For many of us, the use of language is an exercise of unconscious mastery in verbal communication. We don’t spend too much time thinking about it because we really have nothing to think about. Whether we’re buying a candy bar at the gas station or defending our case in a criminal trial, we can rely on language to communicate our wants and needs to others. For a small minority with an interest in the field of language, better known as linguistics, they’re often confronted with a wide variety of literature to choose from, ranging from scholarly works requiring more than layman’s comprehension to entertainment products masquerading as the former. According to linguists Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, there’s been a heavy influx of media on language produced by less than credible sources, noting that a majority of recently published work has been produced by journalists (xv), leaving linguists to be overshadowed on the small screen and bookstore shelves.
Bauer and Trudgill state their purpose for editing Language Myths was a response to the lack of published work on linguistics meant for general readership: “The main reason for presenting this book, we believe, on the whole, linguists have not been good about informing the general public about language” (xv). It’s not as though that there’s been a pattern of miscommunications between linguistics and the public, but rather a lack of attempts to bridge the gap between Ivory Tower-knowledge and the misguided assumptions of non-experts. Bauer and Trudgill address this as a consequence of the linguist profession that leaves little time to write mass market publications:
“Linguists have been busy keeping up with that developing language knowledge and explaining their own findings to other linguists. The most influential linguists are the ones who have had the most important messages for other linguists rather than for the general public.” (xv-xvi)
As a result of the inability and refusal for linguists to communicate their findings to inquiring common minds in a simple way, the facts of language have taken on a life of their own in the common marketplace of ideas. However, this discourse has resulted in less than factual conclusions about language:
“As linguists, we are very much aware that ordinary people have some well-established ideas about language…Some of these ideas are so well established that we might say they were part of our culture. It is in this sense we refer to them as myths.” (Bauer and Trudgill xvi)
After years to perhaps millennia of the general public misunderstanding language, Bauer and Trudgill compiled and edited 21 essays about language written by experts in the field. All of them are meant to address myths that have been circulating in common discourse about language, each promising to clarify any misconceptions and assumptions about language that may have been stated before:
“In each case we have tried to present as a title a brief formulation of the myth, and then we asked the linguists to consider the idea from their professional point of view. If they think the idea is wrong, they have said so. If they think it is based on a false premise, they have said so. If they think that people may not realize where the idea comes from, they have explained this. But in every case, you will find that the linguists are not totally happy with the myth encapsulated in the title, even though they may agree with some aspects of it.” (Bauer and Trudgill xvi)
A majority of the essays presented by Bauer and Trudgill address the notion of assigning value to language. More often that we notice or care to admit, judgments are made about language that presupposes a hierarchy of language that ranges from a greatest to a least, leading to assumptions made by speakers of a given language about the speakers of another language. James Milroy notes this discriminatory act in “Myth 8-Children Can’t Speak or Write Properly Anymore”: “In an age when discrimination in terms of race, colour, and religion or gender is not publicly acceptable, the last bastion of overt social discrimination will continue to be a person’s use of language” (64). These acts should trouble us as people of a democratic society: We believe that everyone is equal, but the majority will loom over and impose their will on the minority. The right to free speech in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is not annotated with any exceptions such as “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of [English] speech.” Therefore, all speech, no matter its origin language, should receive equal protections commensurate with a person’s native tongue or the regional lingua franca.
Another subject explored by Bauer and Trudgill is the way language can be problematic. The reasoning behind this fact doesn’t lie with a language’s perceived quality or inferiority, but rather the underlying structure that forms it. In the case of spelling English words, Edward Carney presents a disadvantage that results from gross phonetic truncation in “Myth 5-English Spelling is Kattastroffik”: “In a Garden-of-Eden alphabetic writing system, you would have a single letter for each speech sound and one speech-sound for each single letter. Large numbers of English words appear to follow this strict pattern…But if we look further, we soon see that too many speech sounds are chasing too few letters” (33).
Grammar is more than likely a source for frustration among speakers of a language. We’re often told by someone (likely not a grammarian) assuming they more about a language than anyone around them that we’re wrong about a certain punctuation mark or word usage and should feel ashamed to make such a supposedly foolish mistake. What you’re actually on the receiving end of is an inefficient means of teaching grammar that is based on arbitrary rules and inconsistent application: prescriptive grammar. Lesley Milroy, contributing “Myth 12-Bad Grammar is Slovenly,” vindicates our headaches: “The prescriptions which are recommended as ‘good grammar’ are revealed as at best marginal and frequently as unrealistic and trivial” (100). Speakers should be more interested in learning how and why grammar is exercised in a certain utterance rather than obeying some archaic style posing as a rule.
An enduring phenomenon of language is the fact that it changes over time for a myriad of reasons. A frequent retort to this evolution by “grammarians” and “linguists” is to assign negative judgment to it and cry “Decay!” However, this is a judgment being made on an assumption that the occurring change will be detrimental to the use of a given language. John Algeo criticizes this judgment in “Myth 21-America is Ruining the English Language”: “The eighteenth-century hope that a language could be ‘fixed’…was a chimera” and “an illusion based on misunderstandings about the nature of language, values and human nature” (177). Clearly, there is nothing for rational speakers to fear about language change. We won’t awake tomorrow and find our language to be a verbalized form of the Wingdings font. It may gradually reach that point (in perhaps some inconceivable unexplainable way), but any efforts to stop that are hopeless. For any remaining doubt, Peter Trudgill offers some consolation in the opening essay, “Myth 1-The Meanings of Words Should Not Be Allowed to Vary of Change”: “All languages change all of the time…The only languages which do not change are those, like Latin, which nobody speaks” (1).
Bauer and Trudgill’s coverage of the subject matter is only a mile wide and an inch deep, and can be read thoroughly in a couple of days at only 182 pages for the Kindle version. For the rookie linguist, Bauer and Trudgill’s compilation is a good introduction to many concepts that govern the field of linguistics, such as change, usage, and grammar. Their work, now nearly twenty years old, has been an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to know more about the arrangement of sounds, words, and sentences that emanate from their mouths on a daily basis.
Algeo, John. “Myth 21-America is Ruining the English Language.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 176-82. Print.
Bauer, Laurie, and Peter Trudgill, eds. Language Myths. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. xv-177. Print.
Carney, Edward. “Myth 5-English Spelling is Kattastroffik.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 32-40. Print.
Milroy, James. “Myth 8-Children Can’t Speak or Write Properly Anymore.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 58-64. Print.
Milroy, Lesley. “Myth 12-Bad Grammar is Slovenly.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 93-100. Print.
Trudgill, Peter. “Myth 1-The Meaning of Words Should Not Be Allowed to Vary or Change.” Language Myths. Ed. Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1998. 1-8. Print.