10 Linguistics Myths And Misconceptions

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Compared to most subjects, linguistics can seem pretty democratic. Fields like physics, math, and history deal in the abstract, in otherwise unobservable things or events.

Linguistics, on the other hand, deals with something that we all have an intimate knowledge of. However, this means we tend to hold a lot of assumptions or even outright misconceptions. These can color the way we approach language as a scientific subject.


10. Inuit Words For ‘Snow’ And A Massachusetts Fire Inspector


Linguistic relativity is a theory sometimes called the “Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.” It says that a language can influence how its speakers see the world. For those who like some spice with their science, it also comes in the strong version of “linguistic determinism.”

We often hear about it in reference to the languages of the various indigenous North Americans. We are often told that Inuit people understand snow differently than we do because they have a far bigger snow-related vocabulary.

At least, this is the idea that Benjamin Lee Whorf—a fire safety inspector and part-time language scholar—popularized in his 1940 article “Science and Linguistics.” This idea took the world by storm, even causing the coinage of “snowclone” in response.

However, it turns out that this claim is a little dubious. Depending on what we call a “word,” the Inuit languages seem to have a similar number of snow-related word roots as our languages do.

Furthermore, Whorf’s piece seems to make up several Inuit words. Otherwise, he really did not understand the source he was using. In fact, it seems that a lot of evidence Whorf used to prove his linguistic relativity is equivocal or even made up. These days, the “strong” version of the theory has been all but discarded.

9. English (Or French, Russian, Tamil, Etc.) Has The World’s Richest Vocabulary


Another myth that we’ve all heard in class is that the English vocabulary is the richest in the world, that it has more words than any other language. The reason for this, we are told, is that English is a “mixed language,” with vocabulary from German, French, and Latin.

Of course, the number of words depends on where you look. Webster’s, for example, counts 475,000. The Global Language Monitor somehow managed to document English’s “millionth word.” They even gave June 10, 2009, 10:22 AM GMT, as a date! Unsurprisingly, other languages make the same claim.

The problem is that we do not know what a “word” is. In English, we might define it as whatever is surrounded by space in writing. However, we do not speak with spaces, we would have to include contractions like “can’t” as words, and we cannot apply this idea to many other languages.

The Inuit languages, for example, use inflections to make what they understand as single words that convey a lot of information. This also happens somewhat with German “compound nouns.” An infamous example of such a compound noun (without the hyphen) is donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitaten-hauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, which refers to a suborganization of the First Danube Steamboat Shipping Company.


8. Children Learn Languages More Easily Than Adults


Another myth, and one that often disheartens adults, is that children are vastly superior at learning languages. This idea is a specious one at best. Children seem to go from a state of ignorance to being wonderfully eloquent.

This seemingly miraculous growth is fascinating and rather puzzling. However, it often leads to adults believing that learning a language would be too difficult after childhood. This is simply not the case.

First, it takes a lot of effort for a baby to learn how to speak. It is a process that lasts until around six or seven and, even then, a few grammar points can prove tricky.

However, it is clear that adults learn new languages far more quickly than infants. Some Internet polyglots can apparently do it in three months. So if you are a budding language student looking to pick up Italian, Czech, or Xhosa, go for it. You have already gone through the hard bit of learning your first tongue.

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