As skeptics, we are dedicated to fighting woo and misinformation, however many educated, kind, intelligent people overlook one of the worst kinds of woo and use it to discriminate against others. What am I talking about? Language woo. Misperceptions and misunderstandings of what language is and how it works. I’m going to lay out a few myths about language that I’ve heard otherwise wonderful skeptics professing, and try to explain from the perspective of a linguist what’s wrong with the underlying premises. As skeptics, we should be wary of all kinds of misinformation, not just worried about bigfoot and anti-vaccers, so let’s start with the most basic of human traits: language.
Myth #1: African-American speech is uneducated and sloppy. If people from bad neighborhoods want to succeed, they should learn how to speak properly.
Fact: This misperception gets to the heart of language woo. Most linguists (those people who study language and how it functions for a living) are descriptivists, not prescriptivists. That means they treat language as a science, looking to describe how actual users function with actual language, instead of trying to understand an ideal system of rules and impose it on users. There is some variation here, but nearly all linguists agree that African American Vernacular English (and many other accents and dialects with negative stereotypes) are 100% grammatical: they simply have a DIFFERENT grammar from standard English. The kicker here is that these speakers are not breaking rules or being lazy, they’re simply following a different set of rules, but it’s still one that is perfectly consistent, intelligible and functional. Asserting that these speakers are lazy or stupid misunderstands how they are using language and how that language is varying from the standard. In fact, standard usages are relatively arbitrary, and usually only based on the variety of language used by the wealthy or educated. Shaming those who don’t use the standard is simply telling them that their rules and behaviors are unacceptable because they are not the same as another person who has more prestige or wealth.
Myth #2: There are certain rules that one needs to follow when writing, such as “no split infinitives” or “don’t end a sentence with a preposition”
Fact: These rules are 100% arbitrary! They actually were not originally part of English, but around the time when dictionaries began to be created, some language enthusiasts decided that English should be more like Latin (because let’s face it, Latin is pretty fantastic). These rules were created because it’s impossible to do these things in Latin, and these thinkers wanted to turn English more Latin. In terms of intelligibility, economy, functionality or the ability of your sentence to communicate a meaning, these rules do absolutely nothing. Again, this misconception comes from the idea that certain languages or dialects are better than others. However there is absolutely no evidence that any language is better than another. People may have personal preferences, or in certain circumstances one dialect or language may be more appropriate, but this doesn’t make one language inherently better. Just like having a favorite cookie doesn’t make that cookie inherently better, so it is with languages.
Myth #3: Language today is sloppy, uses words improperly, and introduces all these new-fangled words that are bad for the language. We’re going downhill!
Fact: Language changes ALL THE TIME! And it’s FANTASTIC! While some people may frown at the fact that users change the meaning of words or coin new words, this is actually how a language grows, adapts and stays alive. Shakespeare coined new words all the time, and many of his words are in common usage and considered acceptable today. Many words we use today have actually taken on a definition completely opposite from what they used to mean, and yet we still understand each other and accept those words. Peter Trudgil points out “”none of us can unilaterally decide what a word means. Meanings of words are shared between people–they are a kind of social contract we all agree to–otherwise communication would not be possible.” As long as a meaning is intelligible, it’s a perfectly acceptable usage of language. These changes happen all the time, otherwise we’d still be using kine instead of cow.
There are many other variations on these same kinds of myths that pop up all the time. However the overall response to all myths that suggest there’s a proper way to speak or that you should judge someone based upon their language is that language is a tool for communication. It varies based upon users. If language communicates, then it is functioning just as it should. In order to function, users may be lazy and create new ways of saying things that cut out some of the syllables. Or they may be creative and introduce new ways of saying things. Different communities may follow different rules. And as time passes, language changes in order to adapt to new people, new technologies and new situations. All of these things are appropriate and helpful for our communication. There are many examples of negative stereotypes towards language being linked with racism, classism and discrimination. As skeptics, we should take the time to educate ourselves on the science of language so that we are not making unfounded judgments about the “correctness” of other people’s language. If you’re interested in language tolerance, check out lesserjoke, who does a number of posts about language myths. If you have the resources, I’d also suggest taking a basic linguistics or sociolinguistics class which can give you all the basic resources to understand language variation and usage, and how it might affect your perception of other people.