language myth

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Language Myths and the History of English by Richard J. Watts (Oxford University Press, 2011).


(1) A popular belief about language that the majority of linguists regard as untrue. (See Examples and Observations, below.)

(2) A term introduced by integrational linguist Roy Harris to characterize the traditional Western concept of presenting "each language as a separate, independent verbal code, designed to facilitate the transfer of specific thoughts from the mind of one person to the mind of another person." This perception, Harris argues, "involves a gross misrepresentation of what actually goes on in the process of human communication" ("Implicit and Explicit Language Teaching" in Language Teaching, 2009).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations:

  • "Language myths [are] things which are widely believed by non-linguists to be true about language or languages but which are actually not, such as the widespread belief that some languages are more 'primitive' than others, or that language change ought to be, and can be, stopped."
    (Peter Trudgill, A Glossary of Sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • The Myth of Linguistic Decline
    "It is typically claimed that the schools are failing in their duty to teach children how to use English properly--both in speaking and in writing--and usually further claimed that this is due to modern teaching methods, which are said to be too permissive. . . .

    "Although it is of course important that educational standards in schools be carefully maintained, there is in reality nothing to suggest that today's youngsters are less competent at speaking and writing their native language than older generations of children were. Their ability to speak the language is just as good, and their ability to read and write it is, almost certainly, a great deal better on average."
    (James Milroy, "Children Can't Speak or Write Properly Any More." Language Myths, ed. by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Penguin, 1998)
  • The Legitimate Language Myth
    "Olivia Smith's 1984 book, The Politics of Language 1791-1819, is an ideal entry point for assessing the politicisation of language in the last two decades of the eighteenth century and outlining the development of a new myth, the myth of the legitimate language (henceforth the legitimate language myth), which grew out of the polite language myth. The new myth became a major force in the construction of a dominant ideology out of which arose a discourse archive that survived till the time of the Second World War in the twentieth century. Some of the 'true' statements belonging to this archive are given below:
    - The British nation-state is monolingual.
    - Standard English is the only legitimate language of the British nation-state.
    - A command of standard English displays moral and intellectual strength.
    - All children should acquire a command of standard English.
    - All nonstandard forms are corrupt, incorrect, degenerate, politically subversive, and so on.
    - Those who continue to speak nonstandard forms of English have an immoral character, are politically subversive, are degenerate.
    - Standard English is superior to other languages.
    - Standard English is a cultural commodity that should be acquired by all states subject to the British Crown.
    - Standard English is a cultural and instrumental commodity that can be sold to those speaking other languages.
    The list of statements could easily be expanded . . .. Most of the statements are obviously no longer valid, and from an objective point of view were never valid."
    (Richard J. Watts, Language Myths and the History of English. Oxford University Press, 2011)
  • A Body-Language Myth
    "One body language myth to be aware of is that all bluffers will avoid looking into your eyes. Although some liars avoid or decrease eye contact, this behavior is widely known and fairly easy to control. In fact, many liars will overcompensate with too much eye contact."
    (Carol Kinsey Goman, The Silent Language of Leaders. Wiley, 2011)
  • Definition #2: The Myth of "Standard" Languages
    "The most pervasive and potentially pernicious ramification of the language myth is the belief, endorsed by all the major schools of orthodox linguistics, that there exist certain privileged codes within the many varieties of English, French, German, etc. These privileged codes are known as 'standard' languages or dialects, and are among the mythical objects allegedly 'described' by orthodox grammarians and lexicographers. They are also often set up as the approved codes to be taught to foreign learners. The usages identified as 'standard' are those from which deviation is condemned as 'incorrect.' This overtly prescriptive doctrine has become deeply entrenched in Western schools and educational curricula. Although orthodox linguists frequently protest that their brand of linguistics is 'descriptive' not prescriptive . . . , and even take this as defining what they understand by linguistics as an academic subject, this lip-service to scientific objectivity is heavily outweighed by the endorsement which orthodox linguists give to the superiority of the 'standard' in educational practice . . .."
    (Roy Harris, "Integrational Linguistics." Handbook of Pragmatics, ed. by Jan-Ola Östman, Jef Verschueren, and Eline Versluys. John Benjamins, 2007)