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American Speech 77.3 (2002) 329-330

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Misconceptions About Language

Robert S. Wachal
University of Iowa

Language Myths Edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill London: Penguin Books, 1998. Pp. xviii + 188.

This fine little book debunks 21 myths about language, one myth per author. Taking up the myths one by one, the book begins with "The Meanings of Words Should Not Be Allowed to Vary or Change" by Peter Trudgill. He debunks the myth quite ably for the most part, but there is one claim which is false: "The only languages which do not change are those, like Latin, which nobody speaks" (1). The major point is correct, but he might better have said Provençal, for it is not the case that nobody speaks Latin, a language that is indeed still spoken in the Vatican, according to Father Reginald Foster, who translates documents in the vernaculars into Latin, a requirement for all major documents. He assures me that he and his office mate regularly speak Latin together (Reginald Foster,, 21 Mar. 2001). An ATM machine in the Vatican has Latin prompts (Patricia Kuhlman, pers. com., 9 Feb. 2001). Claims of the death of Latin are clearly premature.

The myth that "Some Languages Are Just Not Good Enough" is ably disposed of by Ray Harlow.

Jean Aitchison's essay, "The Media Are Ruining English," is a highly capable treatment, but she misdefines wimp as 'feeble male'. It would better be defined as 'weak or ineffectual person, usually a male'.

In "French Is a Logical Language," Anthony Lodge claims that "the fundamental word order of French (unlike that of Latin and German) is Subject + Verb + Object" (26). Claims about the fundamental word order of German are highly controversial, and the debate is too complex for a lay audience. It would have been better to refer only to Latin, which is S + O + V. The fact that English has the same fundamental word order as French should have been mentioned.

Edward Carney's "English Spelling Is Kattastroffik" is as good an explanation of the morphophonemics of English as can be found anywhere. It is brief, lucid, and beautifully laid out. It is well worth buying the book for this article alone. [End Page 329]

Janet Holmes describes several enlightening studies in "Women Talk Too Much," showing that it is men who dominate conversations. Her survey suggests that there needs to be an experiment in which the power factor is absent. For example, men and women could be asked individually to explain something to a member of the same sex.

Myths 7-13 have no bumps in the road of discussion and need no comment. They are "Some Languages Are Harder than Others" by Lars-Gunnar Andersson, "Children Can't Speak or Write Properly Any More" by James Milroy, "In the Appalachians They Speak Like Shakespeare" by Michael Montgomery, "Some Languages Have No Grammar" by Winifred Bauer, "Italian Is Beautiful, German Is Ugly" by Howard Giles and Nancy Niedzielski, "Bad Grammar Is Slovenly" by Lesley Milroy, and "Black Children Are Verbally Deprived" by Walt Wolfram.

In Myth 14, "Double Negatives Are Illogical," Jenny Cheshire says that "if you ask people WHY they object to double negatives, they usually point to mathematics, where 'minus two minus minus two equals zero'—two negatives in the same sentence cancel each other out" (114). If we think of a sentence as a string of words that a listener scans from beginning to end, then each new word adds something to what has gone before; thus: -1 plus -1 = -2, which is precisely the way multiple negation works. It is nonsensical to claim that the process is subtractive (i.e., -1 minus -1 = 0), for that would entail that sentences with an odd number of negatives would be negative while sentences with an even number of negatives would be positive! Those who claim that multiple negation is illogical are apparently assuming a multiplicative model of negation rather than an additive one. A multiplicative model is simply a more straightforward model than a subtractive one; however, it too does not fit either...


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pp. 329-330
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