Disputing Linguistic Myths


I remarked in a recent post that the reason I spend time disputing silly things people say about English grammar is that I take seriously my job description as a professor. But I’ve actually been working to rebut silly claims about language (not just English) since I was an undergraduate.

In the 1956 British edition of The Guinness Book of Records, which I browsed for hours when I was a boy, the section on language (Page 118) has an entry headed MOST PRIMITIVE LANGUAGE. The rosette for “probably the most grammatically primitive” language on earth was pinned on an Australian aboriginal language, “Arunta” (more modern spellings include Aranda and Arrernte). This unfortunate tongue “has no pronouns,” the book reported, and “numbers are only vague expressions of place.” It added: “Words are indeterminate in meaning and form.”

I never found out where this nonsense came from. I can imagine a language with complex verb inflection getting along without pronouns, but as it happens, the Aranda pronoun system is more complex than the English one (see the image of the table from Wikipedia reproduced above). There are at least 36 inflected pronoun forms. For each member of the usual person trio (first, second, third) there are singular, dual, and plural forms; and for each of those nine categories there are nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive case forms. Ilerneke (first-person dual dative) means “(to) the two of us”; itnekenhe (third-person plural genitive) means “of all (three or more) of us”; and so on.

The complexity does not stop there: Reflexivity (to express meanings like “myself” or “yourselves”) involves a separate suffix -lhe, and additionally pronouns can bear markings for subsections in the kinship system, rather as English expresses gender in third-person singular pronouns (masculine he, him, his, himself ; feminine she, her, hers, herself ; neuter it, its, itself ), but sensitive to membership not in sexes but in sociologically and genealogically relevant subclan groupings known as moieties.

To be fair, one should acknowledge that little scientific information on Australian languages had been widely disseminated by the 1950s, so fact-checking on most such languages would have been hard. But as it happens, there was probably more on Aranda (which has about 2,800 speakers) than on any other: The anthropologist T.G.H. Strehlow, intimate enough with the Aranda that they adopted him into the tribe, published important work on Aranda language and culture in the 1940s. (The research was actually done in the 1930s, but he had to wait till all his informants were dead before publishing because they had vouchsafed to him many secret details about ritual language and ceremonies.) By the middle 1960s enough was available* to enable me to convince Norris McWhirter, co-editor of the Guinness Book, to remove the “most primitive” entry from future editions.

I began corresponding regularly with McWhirter during the early 1970s, proposing further removals of false claims (sometimes little better than racist traveler’s tales) and making suggestions for new factually supportable entries. He paid me a few consulting fees for some of the material about language that I supplied. (Over subsequent decades the book was greatly changed, and recent editions hardly touch on such cerebral topics as languages.)

There was much misinformation to combat. Many field linguists who mention to nonacademic white Australians that they study Australian aboriginal languages face blank incredulity: “Aborigines? What’s the point of studying their jabbering and grunting? That isn’t proper language, is it?” The pioneers who discovered Australia between 70 and 40 millennia ago brought with them several families of intricate and surprising linguistic systems, but the descendants of the colonists who stole the aborigines’ land and crushed their traditional culture are often not even aware of the existence of these languages (or of the pace of their extinction).

McWhirter once came back from a visit to South Africa during the apartheid era with a story that the Bushmen of the Kalahari have no real language at all, just a repertoire of a few hundred clicks and grunts. The truth is that the so-called Bushmen speak languages with huge inventories of consonants (among them certain tongue-click sounds), and with intricate grammatical constraints just like any other language. I persuaded McWhirter not to include the insulting twaddle he had picked up (the indigenous peoples of Africa, Australasia, and the Americas have surely suffered enough at the hands of European colonists without having new calumnies heaped upon them).

My contributions toward combating myths and skewering falsehoods about language were small, but I see them as support for the view that studying linguistics can occasionally do some good. It’s not just a matter of accurate description (my focus when discussing English grammar); sometimes it’s about making it clear to the general public that there is something to be accurately described.

*See Dell Hymes (ed.), Language in Culture and Society: A Reader in Linguistics and Anthropology (Harper & Row, New York, 1964), esp. pp. 73–89; in pp. 79–82 an excerpt from Strehlow’s work is reprinted.

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