language myths (peter trudgill) love

language myths (peter trudgill)


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  • two stars. here is the review I posted on

    I found this book to be a great disappointment. Don't get me wrong - there's nothing I find healthier than a little myth-debunking. So I was predisposed to like this collection of 21 essays, edited by Bauer and Trudgill.

    Each chapter takes a particular 'language myth' and then argues against the validity of the myth, some more convincingly than others. (Having tried to learn both Russian and Spanish as foreign languages, I think it's fair to say that the statement "Some languages are harder than others" is not a myth). The quality of the contributions is somewhat variable, though most are quite readable. This accessibility to readers who may not necessarily have any formal exposure to linguistics is the book's main strength, in my view.

    The reason for my disappointment is that, for almost half the chapters, I found the stated myth to be a straw man, which made those chapters not particularly interesting to read. There were two common problems - in some cases, the wording of the myth was so non-specific as to be meaningless, another common flaw was that the myth was worded in a very extreme fashion, essentially presenting a straw man for the author to demolish.

    For instance, myth 1 "The meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change" is couched in such absolute terms that anyone expressing even slight disagreement is automatically made to seem unreasonable. Or take the example "bad grammar is slovenly". The author appears to interpret "bad" grammar to mean anything that deviates, even slightly, from some highly codified set of rules. The acknowledgement that one can communicate clearly, without ambiguity, without sticking to the letter of the law each and every time, is hardly startling, That said, there are some deviations from the rules which are not helpful, because they induce an avoidable ambiguity. This type of bad grammar is indeed slovenly. By arguing against a strawman of questionable relevance, an opportunity is lost to explore the question in a more nuanced fashion.

    Other allegedly widespread myths whose prevalence I found questionable were "Some languages are just not good enough" (what does this even mean?), "French is a logical language", "Women talk too much" (are these people serious?), "Some languages have no grammar" (does anyone over the age of 10 seriously believe this for an instant?), "You shouldn't say 'It is me'" (why single out this particular example?), "Everyone has an accent except me", "They speak really bad English down South and in New York City", "In the Appalachians they speak like Shakespeare" (even if one tries to take this seriously, the inevitable question rises unbidden: "how would anyone know?")

    I might have liked the book better if it had eschewed the "mythbusting" device, the effect of which was to polarize arguments unnecessarily, and instead had just explored the questions raised in a less artificially polemic manner.

    January 20, 2008