10 Linguistics Myths And Misconceptions - Listverse (2022)

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

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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

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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

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(Video) Top 10 Misconceptions

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.

7 A Language Is A Dialect With An Army And Navy

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Most of us would be happy to accept the last few myths as false. But surely we all know what languages, dialects, and accents are? A language is a way of speaking and writing, a dialect is a weird variety of a language, and an accent is what you sound like. Well, not quite. At least, not to linguists.

Typically, we think of “Standard English” as a language and variations such as Southern English and African-American Vernacular English (AAVE or “Ebonics”) as dialects. But a linguist would call Standard English a dialect, too.

The difference between Standard English and nonstandard dialects is “prestige.” By definition, a standard has the “prestige” in society. For example, AAVE is not an inferior dialect of “normal” English, just a “non-prestige” variety.

“Accent” also confuses people. Our phonological peculiarities are often called accents, but these can also fall under the already-cloudy realm of dialects. Even more confusingly, “accent” is sometimes reserved to talk about the features of a non-native speaker’s speech.

There is some truth to the old Yiddish adage, a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot (“a language is a dialect with an army and navy”). It neatly describes how “prestige” dialects come to be seen as distinct “languages” as opposed to mere “dialects.” Yiddish is itself an example of such a “dialect,” at times being subordinated to German.

6 Some Languages Are Simpler Than Others

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The topic of language complexity is a controversial one. Many people assume that some languages (i.e., their own) are more complex than others. From a linguist’s point of view, however, it is difficult to determine how complicated a language is.

The consensus is the “compensation hypothesis.” David Crystal describes it thus: “All languages have a complex grammar. There may be relative simplicity in one respect (e.g., no word endings), but there seems always to be relative complexity in another (e.g., word position).”

The issue with this idea arises when people combine this view with linguistic relativity. Thinking of a language as simplistic can be problematic when you also think that language limits thought.

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An example of this combination is the treatment of Scots—a minority language spoken in Scotland. During the early 20th century, its usage was forbidden in education and it was described as “unsuitable” for teaching, despite many children speaking it natively.

5 Sign Languages Are Not Complete Languages

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Sign languages face the same misconceptions as above. Many people think that sign languages are mimed versions of spoken language. In 2011, the Italian Parliament tried to rename Italian Sign Language (Lingua dei Segni Italiana) as Language of Mime and Gesture (Linguaggio Mimico Gestuale), leading to an uproar in the Italian deaf community.

The fact is, sign languages are complete and expressive languages. For example, the grammar of American Sign Language (ASL) is distinct from English grammar. It has topicalization, which is seen in languages like Japanese and Chinese.

This leads to many different word orders which do not exist in English. ASL even has a complex conjugation system for its verbs with agreement and tense. Sign languages can borrow words from other languages—both signed and spoken—using finger spelling in the case of spoken borrowings.

4 Animal Language

There are many way in which animals communicate—birdsong, pheromones, and waggle dances. Of course, there are also many misconceptions. The most common is that these ways of communicating are linguistic, that they are primitive forms of human language. But this terminology can lead to some confusion. So we need to consider what we mean by “language.”

Two criteria tend to crop up when we try to define language. One is discreteness. This is the idea that a language has to be made of indivisible elements that can be put together.

This element is the morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning in a word. “Car,” for example, is a morpheme, as is “water.” You cannot split up these words. On the other hand, “typewriter” has three morphemes: “type” + “write” + “er.” “Undesirability” has four: “un” + “desire” + “able” + “ity.”

The other criterion we often see is productivity or creativity. According to linguist Noam Chomsky, this is how speakers take the discrete bits of their language and put them together to produce an indefinite number of phrases that other members of a speech community can readily understand.

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Basically, productivity is the ability to make a sentence of indefinite length that anyone who shares your language can understand. The combination of these two ideas is called “digital infinity.”

Digital infinity makes humans distinct from animals. As far as we know, animals cannot grasp morphemes at all and certainly cannot put them together. In fact, a one-year-old’s language is already far more sophisticated than that of any animal.

3 ‘Caught It,’ Not ‘Catched It’

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One of the most prevalent misconceptions concerns how children learn to speak. Those of us who are parents, older siblings, or aunts and uncles may have even experienced this one. We think that when we raise babies, we need to teach them how to talk. This means engaging in word games, asking for the names of things, and, of course, correcting errors like the one in the entry title.

This, however, is the misconception. A baby comes up with the rules of his or her language simply by hearing others speak. In fact, the problem of errors like “catched” or “foots” is a good example of kids’ ability to generalize rules they hear. You might argue, “Well, those are errors that we need to correct.”

However, young kids tend to ignore or misunderstand these corrections and will organically pick up the right forms as they age. A famous experiment by Jean Berko Gleason called the “Wug Test” demonstrated kids’ abilities to make generalizations by asking them to form plurals and past tenses using made-up words with colorful illustrations.

How children manage to accomplish the feat is still largely unknown. One of the current theories is “universal grammar”—the idea that humans have an internalized set of grammatical rules that undergo transformations to become normal phrases. This theory is not without controversy, however, and there is no consensus yet.

2 Text Speech Is Ruining Kids’ English

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To those of us who have young people on Facebook, this is no misconception. Perhaps you struggle with telling your “LOLs” from your “LMAOs.” It is self-evident that kids these days just do not talk or write as well as they used to. Well, not quite.

Without getting into the idea of mistakes, there is evidence that shows kids are doing just as well as they used to, linguistically speaking. In fact, there may be some reason to think they are doing better.

First, the notion that today’s kids cannot communicate as well as kids from previous generations is definitely not true. We need only observe a group of kids to know that they are perfectly capable of mutual comprehension.

Fine, you would likely agree, but can they really communicate with those of us unfamiliar with their “youthemisms”? Well, research shows that kids are actually quite good at using the appropriate register when needed. Surprisingly, the same studies also show that kids actually get better at writing the more they text.

A researcher involved says that the omission of punctuation and capital letters correlates with the development of spelling, grammar, and punctuation skills. The researchers argue that the tendency to abbreviate words means that young people tend to have a better understanding of spelling and how it corresponds to speech.

Perhaps this research should not be surprising. David Crystal points out that kids are now engaged with reading and writing on a level we have never seen before and it is because of their access to phones and computers. Kids are writing more than ever, and db8ing it seems silly.

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1 I Think You Mean ‘Figuratively’

10 Linguistics Myths And Misconceptions - Listverse (9)

Photo via Wikia

Here we are, then, at what may be the most pervasive of all language myths. This myth is that of the pedant, the grammar Nazi, which is called “linguistic prescriptivism.”

Prescriptivism is the idea that “grammar” is a list of a language’s dos and don’ts—such as not misusing “literally,” not splitting infinitives, and not ending sentences with prepositions. The fact is, the reasoning of the pedant is wrong on two levels.

The first is that the vast majority of traditional grammar rules were imported from other languages (notably French and Latin) or were otherwise made up to suit someone’s tastes. The split infinitive rule, for example, comes from an 18th-century desire to make English more like Latin.

Infinitives are one word in Latin, but they are two in English. For example, habere in Latin is “to have” in English, amare is “to like,” etc. In English, it is possible to put a word—usually an adverb—in between the “to” and the verb.

Star Trek gives us the perfect example: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” A prescriptivist, in keeping with a more Latinate style, would correct that to: “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” It sounds weird, do you not think?

But the second reason that prescriptivism is wrong is linguistic. The fact is that there is no clear-cut definition of “error.” One could argue that language is about convention, and thus, usages that differ from the convention are erroneous.

The problem, though, is that language is a lot more diverse than we think. You need only compare the idiom of someone from Australia to that of someone from the Deep South to see this. A prescriptivist could put this down to dialectical differences and correct himself by saying “dialects have conventions.”

However, linguists also recognize “idiolects”—the features unique to an individual speaker. The fact is, prescriptivists have no authority on which to base their claims, other than personal tastes and the conventions that they have internalized. Linguists prefer to take a “descriptive” view of language.

Billy is a student of Spanish and Arabic, and he loves all things linguistic.

fact checked by Jamie Frater

FAQs

Can I make my own language? ›

The good news is that to create a language, you don't have to be as much of a trailblazer as you might think. If you're looking to join a community of like-minded language crafters, you're in luck; the world is full of conlangers, or people who create and practice constructed languages for fun — or even for a living.

Who made up his own language? ›

Tolkien created his first constructed language when he was just a teenager. He was a master of actual languages as well. He knew 35 different tongues, both ancient and modern — everything from Old Norse to Lithuanian.

Did someone invent a language? ›

One of the most famous examples is Esperanto, created by Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887 which he hoped would become a globally spoken unifying language. The fact that it is based on 16 very simple rules and took words from languages already present makes it very easy to learn.

What language does not use words? ›

While the most well-known unspoken language in the world may be American Sign Language (ASL), there are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of sign languages around the globe. Many of these have been created organically in small, mostly rural communities with exceptionally high rates of deafness.

What is the newest spoken language? ›

The world's youngest languages
  • Light Warlpiri. Spoken in Australia by 350 people, Light Warlpiri is one of the newest languages in the world. ...
  • Esperanto. Esperanto is spoken internationally by an estimated 30,000 to 180,000 users. ...
  • Lingala. Coming in as the most well-known language on the list is Lingala. ...
  • Gooniyandi.
Feb 28, 2022

What is the easiest language to learn? ›

15 of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers - ranked
  • Frisian. Frisian is thought to be one of the languages most closely related to English, and therefore also the easiest for English-speakers to pick up. ...
  • Dutch. ...
  • Norwegian. ...
  • Spanish. ...
  • Portuguese. ...
  • Italian. ...
  • French. ...
  • Swedish.
Oct 24, 2021

Which is the 1st language in the world? ›

Dating back to at least 3500 BC, the oldest proof of written Sumerian was found in today's Iraq, on an artifact known as the Kish Tablet. Thus, given this evidence, Sumerian can also be considered the first language in the world.

Which is the oldest English word? ›

Scientists at the University of Reading have discovered that 'I', 'we', 'who' and the numbers '1', '2' and '3' are amongst the oldest words, not only in English, but across all Indo-European languages.

What language did Adam and Eve speak? ›

The Adamic language, according to Jewish tradition (as recorded in the midrashim) and some Christians, is the language spoken by Adam (and possibly Eve) in the Garden of Eden.

What was the first language Jesus spoke? ›

Most religious scholars and historians agree with Pope Francis that the historical Jesus principally spoke a Galilean dialect of Aramaic.

When did humans first speak? ›

Researchers have long debated when humans starting talking to each other. Estimates range wildly, from as late as 50,000 years ago to as early as the beginning of the human genus more than 2 million years ago. But words leave no traces in the archaeological record.

What language has no gender? ›

There are some languages that have no gender! Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish, and many other languages don't categorize any nouns as feminine or masculine and use the same word for he or she in regards to humans.

What is the shortest language? ›

Toki Pona is the smallest language in the world. It is 123 words long, and takes about 30 hours to learn.

What is the shortest word in the world? ›

The shortest word is a. Some might wonder about the word I since it consists of one letter, too. In sound, a is shorter because it is a monophthong (consists of one vowel), while I is a diphthong. Both do consist of one letter in the English writing system, and in most fonts I is the narrowest letter.

Which language is mother of all languages? ›

Covers A Larger Precinct. Though not for all the languages, Sanskrit is surely the mother of many languages, especially languages spoken in Northern India. Even many words from Dravidian languages are derived from Sanskrit.

What is the hardest language in the world? ›

Mandarin

As mentioned before, Mandarin is unanimously considered the most difficult language to master in the world! Spoken by over a billion people in the world, the language can be extremely difficult for people whose native languages use the Latin writing system.

Which language is hardest to learn? ›

15 of the hardest languages to learn, for English speakers -...
  • Russian.
  • Hindi.
  • Vietnamese.
  • Thai.
  • Korean.
  • 13. Japanese.
  • Mandarin Chinese.
  • Arabic.
Nov 7, 2021

Which language is closest to English? ›

However, the closest major language to English, is Dutch. With 23 million native speakers, and an additional 5 million who speak it as a second language, Dutch is the 3rd most-widely spoken Germanic language in the world after English and German.

What is the 10 hardest language to learn? ›

Let's explore the 10 hardest languages for English speakers to learn, and the challenges they deliver:
  1. Mandarin. Mandarin is spoken by 70% of the Chinese population, and is the most spoken language in the world. ...
  2. Arabic. ...
  3. 3. Japanese. ...
  4. Hungarian. ...
  5. Korean. ...
  6. Finnish. ...
  7. Basque. ...
  8. Navajo.
Sep 16, 2022

Which language has the best grammar? ›

  • Arabic has the not only best grammatical structure but a most perfect in All Languages of the World.
  • Arabic 1 word = other language 1 sentence.
  • A Most compressed language to pass your message in more less time then other language.
  • The Arabic increase the brain word processing speed much faster then others.

What language did Abraham speak? ›

This compound Jegarshahaduthla is Aramaic.

Which country has most number of languages? ›

Papua New Guinea is the most multilingual country, with over 839 living languages, according to Ethnologue, a catalogue of the world's known languages. The site ranked countries and territories based on the number of languages spoken as a first language within their borders.

How old is English language? ›

The earliest forms of English, collectively known as Old English, evolved from a group of West Germanic (Ingvaeonic) dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century and further mutated by Norse-speaking Viking settlers starting in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Is Hangry a real word? ›

'Oxford English Dictionary' Adds New Entries Including 'Hangry' Hangry is one of the newest entries. It's defined as "bad tempered or irritable as a result of hunger." Also added mansplain: when a man explains "needlessly, overbearingly or condescendingly."

How old is the word mother? ›

First recorded before 900; Middle English mother, moder, Old English mōdor; cognate with Dutch moeder, German Mutter, Old Norse mōthir, Latin māter, Greek mḗtēr, mā́tēr, Sanskrit mātar-; all from Proto-Indo-European mātér-.

Who had the first written language? ›

1. Sumerian. Sumerian is the oldest attested written language. It was used by the people of Sumer in Southern Mesopotamia and is an isolate language, which means it's not related to any other existing language.

What is oldest country in the world? ›

Japan. Japan is arguably the oldest country in the world. Dating back to 660 BCE, the nation was founded by Emperor Jimmu, and is at least 2,600 years old.

What language did the devil speak? ›

The devil mostly speaks a language of his own called Bellsybabble which he makes up himself as he goes along but when he is very angry he can speak quite bad French very well though some who have heard him say that he has a strong Dublin accent. The name "Bellsybabble" is a pun on Beelzebub, "babble" and Babel.

In which language did God speak to Moses? ›

Later on we see in Exodus 20:22: 'You have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. ' Again in Exodus 33:11: 'So the Lord spoke to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend. ' Moses should have been able to speak at least two languages: Hebrew and Egyptian.

Who Wrote the Bible? ›

Even after nearly 2,000 years of its existence, and centuries of investigation by biblical scholars, we still don't know with certainty who wrote its various texts, when they were written or under what circumstances. READ MORE: The Bible Says Jesus Was Real.

How do you say Jesus in Aramaic? ›

That said, in modern Eastern Aramaic, the language of the Assyrian church, the name for Jesus is pronounced “eesho”. God could be addressed as “God” (alaahaa) or as “Lord” (marryaa). “Our Lord” (as in our Lord Jesus Christ) is “maaraan”.

What is God called in Aramaic? ›

Elah (אֱלָה; Imperial Aramaic: ܐܠܗ; pl. "Elim or Elohim") is the Aramaic word for God and the absolute singular form of ܐܲܠܵܗܵܐ, ʾalāhā. The origin of the word is from Proto-Semitic ʔil and is thus cognate to the Hebrew, Arabic, Akkadian, and other Semitic languages' words for god.

What three languages did Jesus? ›

It is probable that Jesus knew the three common languages of the cultures around him during his life on Earth: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. From this knowledge, it is likely that Jesus spoke in whichever of the three languages was most suitable to the people He was communicating with.

Who created English? ›

English is a West Germanic language that originated from Ingvaeonic languages brought to Britain in the mid 5th to 7th centuries AD by Anglo-Saxon migrants from what is now northwest Germany, southern Denmark and the Netherlands.

What was the color of the first humans? ›

From about 1.2 million years ago to less than 100,000 years ago, archaic humans, including archaic Homo sapiens, were dark-skinned.

Why can only humans talk? ›

Humans have flexibility in the mouth, tongue and lips that lets us form a wide range of precise sounds that chimps simply can't produce, and some have developed this complex voice instrument more than others.

How do I start a new language? ›

The Fastest Way to Learn a New Language in 8 Simple Steps
  1. Set language-learning goals. ...
  2. Learn the “right” words. ...
  3. Study smart. ...
  4. Start using the language all day, every day. ...
  5. Seek out real-life practice. ...
  6. Learn about the culture. ...
  7. Test yourself. ...
  8. Have fun!
Jun 1, 2022

How many fake languages are there? ›

Search Engine Say: “There are approximately 312 constructed languages”.

How long does it take to create a language? ›

If two groups of speakers from the original language were isolated for these lengths of time, the resulting dialects would probably be considered new languages. So the lower limit is probably 500 years and a reasonable limit would be 1000 years for a language to have diverged enough to be mutually incomprehensible.

What language did Adam & Eve speak? ›

The Adamic language, according to Jewish tradition (as recorded in the midrashim) and some Christians, is the language spoken by Adam (and possibly Eve) in the Garden of Eden.

Which language is hardest to learn? ›

15 of the hardest languages to learn, for English speakers -...
  • Russian.
  • Hindi.
  • Vietnamese.
  • Thai.
  • Korean.
  • 13. Japanese.
  • Mandarin Chinese.
  • Arabic.
Nov 7, 2021

How does the brain learn language? ›

They mimic the sounds they hear, practice syntax, and build up their abilities from there. A similar pattern occurs when it comes to written language. It takes time to learn all the syntax and vocabulary to speak like an adult.

What's the most secret language? ›

Pig Latin. This is the most popular and well-known secret language. Move the first letter to the end of the word and add “ay” to it.

Is there a secret language? ›

The phenomenon, also called cryptophasia (Greek: “secret” + “speech”), describes a language developed by twins in early childhood which they only speak with each other. Invented languages spoken by very few people are also referred to as autonomous languages or idioglossia.

Is 2 hours a day enough to learn a language? ›

The short answer is as much as possible.

Realistically, however, at least 20 minutes per day should be dedicated to learning a new language. The ideal amount of time to spend on daily study, if you can find the time, is an hour, but you don't need to cram it all in at once.

Can you learn a language while sleeping? ›

A new study suggests some language learning can take place during sleep. Researchers from Switzerland's University of Bern say they discovered people were able to learn new language words during deep levels of sleep. Results of the study recently appeared in the publication Current Biology.

Can you learn a language just by listening? ›

When learning a new language, the fastest and most effective way to absorb new material is by actively listening. You'll be able to engage with what you're hearing on a deeper level, even if you don't understand what's being said.

What is alien language called? ›

Alien languages (Exo-Linguistics), i.e. languages of extraterrestrial beings, are a hypothetical subject since none have been encountered so far. The research in these hypothetical languages is variously called exolinguistics, xenolinguistics or astrolinguistics.

How do you name a language? ›

Language name generator

Languages tend to be named after the country it's spoken in or originated from. England -> English, Germany -> German, France -> French, and so on.

How do you invent the alphabet? ›

Creating My Own Alphabet FROM SCRATCH - YouTube

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