LINGUIST List 8.39

Fri Jan 17 1997

Sum: Myths in linguistics

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. feargal murphy, sum - myths in linguistics

Message 1: sum - myths in linguistics

Date: Thu, 16 Jan 1997 16:51:28 +0000 (GMT)
From: feargal murphy <>
Subject: sum - myths in linguistics

Many thanks to the following contributors to "Myths in Lingusitics":<claudia.brugman>
Jim Entwisle <>
Mikael Parkvall <>
Andreas Mengel <>
Yehouda Harpaz <>
Patrick Griffiths <><Peter Ross>
Andrew S Mccullough <> (David Solnit)<Annick DeHouwer><Herb Stahlke>
Stefan Kaufmann <kaufmannCsli.Stanford.EDU>
Clay Taylor <>
Monica Macaulay <>
Fred Cummins <>
Joyce McDonough <>
Tamara Al-Kasey <>
David Robertson <>
Jack Hall <JHallUH.EDU>
Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Aimee Ashbaugh <>
Hilde Hasselgard <>
John Coleman <> (Paul Kent Andersen) (Dr. Dennis G. Holt)
Stavros Macrakis <> (Dale Russell)<M. David Greenspon> (Norman Roberts)
Sally Keyels <
Deborah D K Ruuskanen <>
George Aubin <>
Larry Trask <>

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I have given the responses pretty much as they came in. There is
some repitition but this summary may lead to more myths being
brought to light.

Feargal Murphy,
Dept of Linguistics,
Unviersity College Dublin.

- ---------

Don't know if this qualifies, but it's certainly been raised to
the status of myth: that because of the genetic endowment, we
either don't need to, or it does no good to, explicitly teach
"grammar" (i.e. prescriptive grammar) in schools.

Are we allowed to suggest Universal Grammar?

- -----

The web site ** has a number
legends concerning language that might be of interest
- ------
Not exactly myths, but your colleague may find it useful to look at

- -----

With reference to your recent posting on the LINGUIST list, I
rate the Critical Period notion as a myth. It seems to me that
it was spawned by some speculations near the end of Penfield &
Roberts' (1959) book and pushed a bit further by Lenneberg
(1967); thereafter simply believed. There is little other than
circumstantial evidence for it and counter examples, e.g. those
in Birdsong (1992), simply get ignored.

D Birdsong *Ultimate attainment in second language acquisition*.
Language, 1992, 68: 4, 705-55.

E Lenneberg *Biological foundations of language*. Wiley, 1967.

W Penfield & L Roberts *Speech and brain mechanisms*. Oxford
University Press, 1959.

- ----------

'Arbitariness of form and meaning' (Saussure, eg 1959:67) has
developed into a linguistic myth that says we should not bother
to look at language in terms of relationships between form and
meaning. Actually, while arbitrarines is the basis of the
language system, Saussures argues that the limiting of
arbitrariness is the basis for the study of language because
"...the mind contrives to introduce a principle of order and
regularity into certain parts of the [otherwise arbitrary] mass
of signs" (ibid, 133). The sign is arbitrary a priori, but
non-arbitrary a posteriori (Holdcroft, 1991:53).

- ----------

This should be obvious to all! The biggest myth in linguistics:

- ---------

There are some about Chinese, especially the writing system.
The notion that Chinese writing is 'idiographic' is probably
better termed a misconception than a myth, but there is the one
that says that the character meaning 'discord' consists of two
women under a roof (ho,ho). There is no such character,
although there are real characters that work in a similarly
misogynistic manner.

- ---------

I can think of two more (both in the area of child language):

1. the myth that children cannot learn language from television
(see a review in First Language in 1995 of the book *Input and
Interaction* edited by Gallaway and Richards 


2. the myth that young children who are exposed to two languages
from birth always first develop some sort of amalgamated system
that looks like neither of the languages they're exposed to
(this myth is once again proclaimed as 'fact' by Colin Baker in
his recent - 1995 - book on bilingual children geared towards
educators of young bilingual children and can be actually
detrimental to young bilingual children ie if they actually do
develop some weird amalgamated system something's definitely
wrong but parents/speech therapists won't think so because it's
what the books say; see my chapter in the Handbook of Child
Language edited by MacWhinney and Fletcheron Bilingual
Acquisition for a review of the relevant research evidence).

- -----------

The one that comes to mind immediately is the myth of
psychological reality, which linguists have been susceptible to
for a long time. Sapir was perhaps the most cautious about it
the generativists of the '60s who associated transformations
with mental processes the least cautious.

- --------

"poverty of stimulus".

- -------

After class this morning a student came up to me and asked "Is
it true that Navajo is the only language that you can't learn as
an adult?" I said "what?" and he explained that he had heard
(although he didn't know where) that even a person who's really
good at learning foreign languages (an adult person, that is)
would not be able to learn Navajo.

- -----------

I would consider the claim, once widespread, that there are two
types of language, stress-timed and syllable-timed,
distinguished by the fact that in the former inter-stress
intervals are equal, and in the latter, syllables are of equal
length to be a well perpetuated myth. weak version of this came
from Pike (1945) but it appears as dogma in Abercrombie (1967)
for the first time I know of.

- ---------

1: Gary Witherspoon's Navajo world view and animacy heirarchy
myth based on the bi/yi distinction in Navajo.

2: Archibald Hills article in Dell Hymes Anthrop Linguistics
volume on Cherokee is a beautiful thing, debunking a myth about
synthetic languages not allowing 'analytic' thought.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of course, and all its various
forms. Harder to pin down.

- ---------

And of course the problem of reification is rife in the field,
-taking incidental properties of thoeries, like the association
lines in phonology, as real things in the world,- but that may
be off the subject a bit. it is mythologizing though.

Have you considered the myth that Language X, say Lithuanian /
Sanskrit / Latin / Greek / Hittite, is 'the oldest language' in
either its family or the entire world? You know, that myth
that's always based on a state of partial informedness and
overly heavyfocus on a single quality such as age of
attestation, heavy degree of conservatism in the grammar, etc.

- -------

The u-shaped learning curve in the development of English past
tense. The child starts out getting irregular past tense forms
right. Then regularizes 100% of the time. Then slowing acquires
the irregular forms again.

No paper ever actually found this. It seems to be based on a
casual reading of a 1964 paper by Ervin.

Any actual u-shape to the function is small (e.g. a dip from
100% to 90+% for most children), and is very dependent on the
way that the function is measured.

A good reference would be the Marcus et al. monograph put out by
SRCD, 1992 (or was it 1993?).

- --------

Of course, the most pervasive myth in current linguistics is the
WHORF HYPOTHESIS MYTH that assumes that Whorf, possibly in
tandem with his professor Sapir, actually wrote any hypothesis
at all, but especially one that dealt in any way with
determinism. Whorf did write a "principle of linguistic
relativity," which he named as such, which was a qualitative
rewrite of the language (of geometries) question which Einstein
dealt with in his more famous principle. As we saw recently on
Linguist, Einstein in his later life paid homage many times to
linguist Jost Winteler, a Humboldtian-trained linguist
interested in what we now call relativity.

In all cases, relativity is always about how every language is
biased in its own way, and how when you change your language,
you change your understanding of the 'world'. Linguists tend to
think that what happened when linguistic relativity got to
modern physics has nothing to do with linguistics anymore (who
has the time to learn another field that's so complex!), and
they've stoned the messenger that tried to reclaim it for our
discipline while camouflaging his insight in a smokescreen of
hypotheses created by academics who evidently didn't want their
own names associated with their creations and blamed Whorf for
them. Of course, none of this would have happened if the
universalists currently in power hadn't taken a rather binary
approach that sees relativity as some kind of enemy to their
cause instead of a complementary approach that values relativity
and universalism as equal and co-existing teachers about human

- ---------

Robin Lakoff in her 1975 book _Language and Women's Place_
suggested that women use tag questions more than men as an
indication of their greater tentativeness, but offered no
empirical data. Subsequently, her remark was accepted as fact
and cited by others (I can't provide any citations), but when it
was studied, it was found that (1) women and men use the same
number of tags; (2) there are different types, not all of which
express tentativeness. If you want further info/references, I
can provide those.

- --------

This book is a good place to look:
Pullum, Geoffrey K. The great Eskimo vocabulary hoax and other
essays on the study of language / Geoffrey K. Pullum. Chicago :
University of Chicago Press, 1991.

- -------

How about the myth of German nearly being the official language
of the USA?

There are also a few more anthropological-style myths e.g. the
myth that Mayan and Ancient Egyptian are related languages (and
other myths in the same vein e.g. Easter Island script being
related to Indus Valley script). The Welsh-speaking American
Indians (the legend of Prince Madoc). Myths of word-origins
e.g. "kangaroo" (mythically, Capt. Cook said to an aborigine,
"what do you call that animal", aborigine replied "kangaroo",
meaning "I can't understand you" or some such reply). "Penguin"
(mythically, or perhaps just uncertainly, = Welsh pen gwyn,
"white head"). The Japanese myth that their language is
genetically unrelated to all others.

I can think of some "myths" that are really mundane falsities,
but get repeated anyway. E.g. the idea that coarticulation
arises because of sluggishness of the articulators, which
despite being proven wrong is still cited, most recently in an
article in the latest issue of Scientific American.

- --------

Well, there's the one that says that Hopi Indians do not think
temporally, as evidenced by the fact that their language has no
verb tenses. I've heard it claimed that Hopis are incapable of
distinguishing the past from the future, and either from the

I've also heard it claimed that English is "the hardest
language," because it has seven different pronunciations for the
string of letters "ough." But I don't really think that one
should be laid at the door of linguists.

- ----------

I've collected some information about linguistics-related myths
on my web page: There is a
fair amount of discussion exerpted from the LINGUIST list about
Eskimo 'snow' and German as the national language of the U.S. I
also mention a few more myths and misconceptions and give a
couple of links to other sources.

- -------

Arabic (Bedouin) words for camel and sand
Japanese words for rice
Chinese only has 400 words
"Primitive" languages change so rapidly that five years after initial
contact, the language is unrecognizable.
Hawaiian has the fewest sounds of any language in the world.
- ------

You probably already have responses like these, and it may not
be the kind of thing you're looking for, but what I thought of
was the "myth" of Indian languages being: How! Me no likem white
man. kind of language that is proliferated in movies and on tv.
Most of the amerind languages are polysynthetic and highly
complex. There is also the generic Asian who speaks in a
sing-song voice and uses "l" for "r" all the time. Japanese is
a polysyllabic language, not sing song at all (which impression
comes from tones), and there is a problem with distinguishing
"r"s and "l"s. Chinese is monosyllabic, does have tones, but
doesn't have the same problem with "r"s and "l"s. "L" can occur
word initially and "r" can occur word finally. There are more
distinctions too, which are lost in "stereotypes" of the

Another example might well be associated with Webster Lake in
Webster, MA. In spite of Ives Goddards' efforts, both the
purported Indian name and the purported translation, both highly
questionable, keep popping up hither and yon. The 'Indian' name
doesn't appear until the 19th century in Dudley and Oxford
(MA). It seems to be a combination of Chargoggagoggmanchoggagogg
Pond (which appears apparently for the first time on the 1831
survey maps of Dudley and Oxford and which is apparently a
humorous corruption based on Manchaug Pond and Chaubunagungamaug
Pond, a name which goes back to the earliest town records), and
Chaubunagungamaug Pond (which means in Proto-Eastern Algonquian
'that which is a divided island lake'). Ives Goddard discusses
this in IJAL 43.158 (1977). He calls it one of '... the silliest
and most tenacious tenets of American folk-toponymy ...' The
'translation' usually given, 'you fish on your side, I fish on
my side, and nobody fish in the middle', is pure hokum. It
appears for the first time about 1921. It is fairly certain that
it is the brainchild of Larry Daly, a veteran newspaperman for
the Webster Times, who found himself in need of a good story one
night, dreamed up this 'translation', printed it, and it has
been accepted as gospel ever since.

If it's too good to be true, it probably is --- but that hasn't affected
the popularity either of the 'Indian name' or of the 'translation' of
the 'Indian' name of Webster Lake an iota.

- -------------

1: Somewhere, in the Ozarks or in Derbyshire, there's a village
where people still speak unaltered Elizabethan English.

2: There exist primitive languages. To these are variously
attributed such characteristics as a tiny vocabulary
supplemented by grunts and gestures, the absence of words for
abstractions or generalizations, the virtual absence of any
grammar, or a strange grammatical system based upon distinctions
among several different kinds of mysterious natural forces.

3: All languages are striving toward perfection, and some
languages (especially mine) are much closer to this goal than
other languages, which still have a long way to go.

4: Some languages are much older than others. (Don't know what
this is supposed to mean, but most people appear to believe it

5: The ancestral language of all humankind is still spoken today
in some privileged corner of the earth. (Not so common today,
but a pervasive belief among scholars in the past.)

6: Basque is a uniquely strange language of fiendish complexity.
It is so difficult to learn that no outsider has ever succeeded
in learning it. (And all Basque verbs are passive.)

7: Certain writing systems, including the Chinese one, do not
represent speech or language; instead, they represent thoughts
or ideas directly, without the mediation of language. (This one
largely succeeded in blocking the decipherment of the Mayan
inscriptions for a generation.)

8: Most of the languages I don't speak are guttural (or perhaps
I should write `gutteral').

9: Black people speak English with a funny accent because their
lips are too thick to pronounce it properly. (Outrageously
offensive, but believed by more than a few people.)

10: When people have a cold, their speech becomes more nasal.
And French has nasal vowels because the north of France is cold
and damp.

11: Castilian Spanish has a dental fricative in place of the [s]
of other types of Spanish because one king of Castile had a lisp
and everybody imitated him in order to be polite.

12: English has practically no grammar, and Chinese has no
grammar at all.

13: French is more logical than other languages. (Many French
people believe this firmly, and will argue about it.)

13: There is a language called `Indian', and it is spoken by
American Indians. (Other interesting languages I have seen
mentioned include `Belgian', `Welsh Gaelic' and `cuneiform'.)

15: Women interrupt far more than men. (The very reverse of the

16: Shakespeare had a BBC accent, and the Americans (and, I
suppose, the Irish) have buggered up the pronunciation.

17: Everybody has an accent except me and my friends; we don't.

18: Lots of people (for example, in Africa) don't speak a
language; they just speak a dialect.

19: In Britain, dialects are only spoken in rural areas.

20: Almost all language change is corruption, and the language
is daily becoming more corrupt and less suitable as a vehicle of
communication. Most of this is the fault of the Americans.

21: English has a verb-form called the `infinitive', which
always has a `to' in front of it, and breaking up this sequence
is ungrammatical or even immoral.

22: There are exactly eight parts of speech, and anything that
gives trouble is an adverb. (Look at most dictionaries of

23: One more, not a widespread myth, but something I've heard
from a student: Europeans speak from left to right, while Arabs
speak from right to left.

- -----

There is also the book about some of the myths in modern
medicine: *Follies and fallacies in medicine* by Petr Skrabanek,
James McCormick. Glasgow, Tarragon, 1989.

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- ==--==--==--==--==--==--==--==--==--==--==--==--==--

Dept of Linguistics
University College Dublin
Dublin 4
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