LINGUIST List 9.1487

Sat Oct 24 1998

Sum: Collection of Stupid Language Proclamations

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Gert Webelhuth, Summary of "Is there a collection of stupid things said publicly about language?"

Message 1: Summary of "Is there a collection of stupid things said publicly about language?"

Date: Sat, 24 Oct 1998 08:33:37 -0400
From: Gert Webelhuth <>
Subject: Summary of "Is there a collection of stupid things said publicly about language?"

Hello everybody,

about 3 weeks ago, I posted the following query here:

"There was a silly syndicated column by James Kilpatrick in our newspaper
today ("When a suffix won't suffice any more", Raleigh News & Observer,
10/05/98), that laments the decline and going out of use of the English
"feminine suffixes" -ess, -ette, and -ix. That makes me wonder whether a
collection of stupid or uninformed public statements about language exists
somewhere in book form or whether some of you may have a private collection
of such things they would be willing to share. This would make great
discussion material for an Intro to Linguistics class.

Thank you very much for any leads you can give!"

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I would like to warmly thank all those who took time out of their busy
lives to respond to my query. I am reproducing below what information I
received, with one exception: I am leaving out messages of the from: "I
think person X has such a collection." The reason is that I was unable to
confirm this and don't want to be responsible for these folks getting a lot
of potentially unwanted mail following my summary here. (If you REALLY,
REALLY feel that you must contact one of them, then please write to me.)

Thank you very much for your help again!


Gert Webelhuth


Mikael Parkvall wrote:

If you haven't already, you might be interested in checking out the
"language" section of the "Urban Legends Archive" at
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Vctor Vzquez Martnez wrote:

I think you might start with:
-Bloomfield, Leonard; "Secondary and tertiary responses to language" in
Language 20.45-55, 1944. (reprinted in "A Leonard Bloomfield anthology, ed.
by C.F. Hockett, Un. of Chicago Press, 1987). Good Luck!
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Daniel Currie Hall wrote:

There are several collections of William Safire's columns on language out
there, which often contain interesting bits of silliness. While Safire can
be quite clever, his (and his correspondents') blend of tolerant
descriptivism (towards any innovations that don't annoy them) and
self-righteous prescriptivism (in defence of 'proper usage') frequently
makes for some strange pronouncements.
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Anatol Stefanowitsch wrote:

James Kilpatrick's collected strokes of genius are archived at the
following web address:

If you hear about any other sources, I would be interested in a summary (I
wonder why linguists always like to read other people's uninformed blather
about language--I guess it must be some deep rooted masochism).
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Michal Lisecki wrote:

To be sincerely frank I don't recall seeing such a site but it might be of
some interest to you if you visit my home page
( where you can find all sorts of language
oddities and trivia. It is a mirror page of Jeff Miller's site. Let me know
if you have anything to add to the's not ready yet but I am
trying my best to complete a similar one on Polish language. And please, if
you find anything about these stupid statements I would be glad to hear
about it...
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Lynne Hewitt wrote:

I don't have such a collection, but I'll share with you an example that had
me steamed a while back. In National Geographic (which normally prides
itself on providing accurate popular info. on science, and does correct
errors in its letters column) a year or two ago there was an article about
the Romans in which the author stated that Latin was the most logical
language or something stupid to that effect, and lamented the decline of
Latin instruction (presumably all of us non-Latin scholars are illogical).
I was particularly incensed that Nat. Geographic fact checkers don't mind
letting such nonsense slip by when they would be very embarrassed if
similar folk beliefs in other scientific domains were printed as fact in
its pages.

If you come up with a great collection, I hope it will be posted to a
website (maybe there could be a home for it on the Linguist webpage) so we
could all draw on it as you intend to do, for classroom instruction.
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Dennis R. Preston ( wrote:

I saw your note on the list about "silly stories." My take on them is a
little different (since I believe they offer an important opportunity for
us to discover what nonlinguisits believe about language), but I do have a
very large collection of such data (more acquired from interview than by
gleanings from the press), and Nancy Niedzielski (Panasonic Corp.) and I
have a book coming out from Mouton de Gruyter later this year entitled
"Folk Linguistics."

I hope you will not mind my attaching a copy of my vita, but since this
work has engaged me for almost two decades, probably more than one-half of
my output since 1981 or so concerns this topic in one way or another. If
you would like to have a look at any of this published stuff and find it
unavailable, let me know.



PS: "Stakos" is the term the Bloomfield family used for "silly"
observations about language, and it was apparently a very common
dinner-table topic with them.
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Dan Moonhawk Alford wrote:

There is a TEACH-LING list available where you can find discussions on this
from about 2 yrs ago in the archives. I'll forward subscribing instructions.

Welcome to Teach-ling!

The purpose of this list is to share ideas, curricula, handouts, problem
sets, tests, activities, and whatever else might come in handy for the
teaching of linguistics at all levels. List members include faculty
members, GTAs, and secondary school teachers who take the job of teaching
linguistics seriously. We are aware that for many students their their only
exposure to our field will be one or two basic level courses, and we think
it is important that they take away from these classes a sense of the
excitement and beauty of the subject matter that drew us into this field.
However, we are also aware that it the subject matter is frequently more
difficult and abstract than students expect, that it challenges sometimes
strongly held preexisting beliefs about language, and that it may not be
seen as central to a student's major or specialization. Thus, linguistics
can be a challenging subject to teach, and it is the purpose of this list
to support those who wish to take up that challenge.

We expect this will be a relatively low volume list that is tightly focused
on issues of linguistics pedagogy. List members are expected to keep all
messages on topic, so as not to flood members mailboxes with irrelevant
messages and causing them to leave the list. Later, I hope that we can set
up a webpage or at least an archive to store pedagogical materials, but
right now I'm too busy to do so, what with one full time job in a high
school and a two part time jobs teaching teachers. So volunteers are

Finally, the original core of members began talking to each other about the
use of active learning methods in linguistics. Active learning is an
approach which emphasizes the employment of activities and methods that
promote student initiative in the exploration of a particular subject
matter. Lectures, in which the teacher transmits information, are kept
short; the core of the class has students working in groups, individually,
in pairs problem solving, preparing a presentation, or debating a reading.
Traditional linguistics exercises are of course one form of active
learning. One emphasis of the list will be on sharing active learning
techniques, with a particular focus on linguistics.

A couple of procedural notes:

If you want to contact me, write a message to

If you need to unsubscribe send a message to listproc saying

"unsubscribe teach-ling -youraddress--"

Please save this message for future reference
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Sean Witty wrote:

I don't see the connection between "silliness' and the use of these
suffices. The decline of these morphemes is largely the result of feminist
prescription directed at people's usage of the language, and their own lack
of any understanding regarding linguistics as a whole.

Instead, today, we are forced to use such syntactically incorrect
expressions as "his or her", which leaves a pronoun without an anaphor,
rather than defaulting to the masculine, which was intended to refer to
humankind in the indefinite first place. All of this was predicated by the
desire of a special interest group, hell-bent not on gaining social
equality, which was their due, but socio-political power (ever try to
convince a feminist that the answer to "linguistic gender inequality" is to
simply stop using the feminine gender?).

The facts concerning grammatical gender are clear, although most are blind
to see them. One more time for the record: the indefinite masculine gender
refers to humankind; the indefinite feminine gender refers to female-kind.
If there is an inequality, it is the fact women have their own gender, and
men do not.

If you find any of this "silly" or "funny", then you're in the wrong business.
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Gert Webelhuth
Associate Professor of Linguistics, Department of Linguistics,
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill,
NC 27599-3155

OTHER ADDRESS MAY NOT REACH ME!!! (drop final "h" of my last name!)
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