A kind reader in Slovakia took advantage of the Amazon link in the margin to send me a copy of Language Myths, by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill (thanks very much, Ján!). Someone recently asked me to recommend a few books that would give a basic idea of language as seen by linguists for the nonspecialist; as soon as I looked through this, I wrote him back and added it to the ones I’d already mentioned (Jim Quinn’s American Tongue and Cheek and Robert A. Hall, Jr.’s Linguistics and Your Language, a revised edition of Leave Your Language Alone!). The format is simple and brilliant: have a bunch of linguists take a bunch of popular myths about language and deconstruct them, explaining why linguists look at the issue differently and what the facts of the matter are. Some of the myths discussed are “the meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change,” “some languages are just not good enough,” “women talk too much,” “some languages are harder than others,” “some languages have no grammar,” “double negatives are illogical,” and “Aborigines speak a primitive language.” Obviously some sections are better written than others, but anyone who reads the whole book will have not a grounding in linguistic science but something more important for the average citizen: a basic grasp of how linguists think about language, and an understanding of why the silly ideas that irritate linguists so much are silly. If enough people achieved that, conversations about language would be as coherent as those about (say) sports, and a whole generation of linguists could stop worrying about their blood pressure so much.


  1. A great book. It sits next to Hall’s and Quinn’s books on the prescriptivist-vs.-descriptivist shelves (thanks for suggesting Quinn a while back). (Alas, though, it has been my observation that those most in need of a linguistic clue are those most immune to it.) Another good book in this respect is Ronald Wardhaugh’s Proper English: Myths and Misunderstandings About Language.

  2. Have there ever been experiments to teach grammar school grammar via introspection? If native speakers, kids have already wired the machinery. And they have some abstraction capabilities. I naively imagine that starred counterexamples would be fun while working out how the language they already know works.
    I know it’s complicated by also learning a higher, written register (which in some cases may be close to a whole other language). And spelling (which in French reveals more than the spoken language has or at least more of it).

  3. You’ve grossly overestimated the usual level of coherence of conversations about sports.

  4. This book was required reading for my Sociolinguistics class taught by Robin Lakoff at UCB. I absolutely loved it, for both its breadth and simplicity. I often reference it when explaining what the hell this linguistic hokey-pokey is all about.

  5. I agree with JSE, most sports fans (and columnists) are actually shockingly ignorant about sports, but are perfectly willing and able to proffer all sorts of no-nothing opinions without fear of factual rebuttal. I think that is precisely why so many people enjoy talking about sports.
    I picked up “Language Myths” last year for $4.99 new at one of those discount book warehouses in Tilton, NH. It was my steal of the summer.

  6. There was a Princess Somebody of Denmark sitting at a table with a number of people around her, and I saw an empty chair at their table and sat down.
    She turned to me and said, “Oh! You’re one of the Nobel-Prize-winners. In what field did you do your work?”

    “In physics,” I said.

    “Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can’t talk about it.”

    “On the contrary,” I answered. “It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance–gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood–so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!”

    I don’t know how they do it. There’s a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it!

    —Richard Feynman at the Nobel Prize dinner

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