There are widely spread misconceptions held about language and although they may sound correct, more often than not, these beliefs falsely represent language. It is important to realize that these ideas and beliefs do not correlate to reality. I am going to challenge two misconceptions commonly held about language. The first belief I will challenge is that swearing degrades a language. The second belief I will challenge is that the secret to having a better world is having a common language. Through challenging these beliefs, I hope to shed some light on these fallacies and demonstrate that linguistic problems can be broken apart and analyzed.
Common Language Myths
1. Some languages are simpler than others.
2. Lazy speakers are running language into the ground.
3. People who speak a different dialect are less intelligent and articulate.
4. It's easier to speak Chinese if your ancestry is Chinese.
I am going to challenge some myths about language to prove that these are in fact myths, and that these stereotypes about language, like with any stereotype, is a drastic oversimplification of reality.
Claim 1: Swearing degrades a language.
Seems like it might have some truth in it, right?
I think it would be appropriate to address why people might associate swearing and profanity as a degradation of language. Like many of the important aspects that make up society, misconceptions arise out of an oversimplification of reality. Society places emphasis on what fits the impression that we’ve already created as a collective whole.
These ideas we hold dealing with the realm of linguistics and language, in our minds, fit what we perceive because our assumptions and expectations of groups of people greatly determines how we see them
We rank people based on how they talk. So, if an individual’s every other word is profanity, people would rank that individual as “lower class”. Why? Because that is not an “appropriate” or “proper” way to talk. Grammar (from my understanding), is a particular set of language rules or the quality of a language: basically, what to do and what not to do. If an individual were to say that profanity is bad grammar, they would be speaking from a prescriptive grammar perspective. Prescriptive grammar is what is considered a proper way to use language.
We can see that this is the kind of grammar that the education system tries to enforce in school. For instance, as they work to homogenize us to speak a particular way, we’re told to not use double negatives or that it’s a big NO to curse. Therefore, prescriptive grammar is something we have to be taught; it’s not actually apart of what we know when we know a language and is inconsistent with what the speaker actually does. If we hear others curse today, we might think that that particular person must be less-educated. However, language isn’t prescriptive grammar.
Prescriptive grammar tells us how to speak and write according to society’s ideas of what’s “normal”. But this is not the basis of language. Instead, our mentally represented linguistic competence is what’s at the very foundations of language. Linguistic competence is a person’s hidden ability to speak a language.
Even when we aren’t actually speaking, our linguistic competence is still there. The patterns that occur in our language are stored in our mental grammar. This is not something that can be wrong or incorrect- it just is. From this, it can be concluded that cursing is just another part of our language- it’s a pattern of language that occurs naturally (descriptive grammar). Though when people use their prescriptive grammar, they will try to avoid profanity, because according to the collective whole of society, there is an idealized way of speaking and of what sounds good. However, prescriptive grammar is not the basis of our linguistic competence.
Claim 2: The secret to having a better world is having a common language.
Society and its systems have taught us that there is basically one way to be. They work hard to homogenize us, even when it comes to our speaking. From American Tongues we can see a clear example of this, when our language and speech can potentially get in the way of the job market.
But language really is molded around the culture we live in. Shariatmadari (2006) says that because language only comes into existence when people use it (through speech or writing), it would be impossible to try to control it. There are so many factors that play into language variation- from age, to gender, social status, religion, etc. Also, it’s unnecessary. For instance, there’s no need for me to communicate with someone from Dubai- even if we did speak the same language.
Since language is the product of people and their culture, to say the world would be better off with one common language wouldn’t be feasible. Many ideas and roles that take place in a region/culture are distinguishable from one another. Aspects that are unique to one culture aren’t interchangeable to another and to try and represent that with a common language wouldn’t be logical. For instance, politeness and manners vary from culture to culture and is reflected in language. T
o have one language would be an attempt to alter another society’s ideas. Language is natural, and is not something that should have to be changed. It’s beneficial to have more than one language- by having many diverse languages we can acquire knowledge and insight into the intricate relationship between language and the mind. We can learn more about ourselves.
Summary and Implications
Even though there are certain beliefs about language that exist, that we hold to be true- they are often misconceptions and misrepresent language. From the arguments made, we can see that we can go about challenging language myths scientifically using the field of linguistics. By looking at the sociolinguistic branch of linguistics, we could see that factors that played a role in these myths and were able to challenge them. These assumptions about language seem very real to people because it’s what they perceive. It’s important to understand that sensation and perception is different; what is actually happen in regards to language (what we sense) is not the same as how we perceive.
Our perception is filtered from previous experience, assumptions, and an oversimplification of reality. People often don’t think about this because our perceptions feel very real to us- it’s our “truth”. It may seem very real to us that swearing degrades a language, but if we look at it analytically through the eye of a linguist, we can see that this is not reality.