The Definition and Examples of Folk Linguistics

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Folk linguistics is the study of speakers' opinions and beliefs about language, language varieties, and language usage. Adjective: folk-linguistic. Also called perceptual dialectology.

Non-linguists' attitudes toward language (the subject of folk linguistics) are often at variance with the views of specialists. As noted by Montgomery and Beal, "[N]on-linguists' beliefs have been discounted by many linguists as unimportant, as arising from a lack of education or knowledge, and therefore invalid as legitimate areas for investigation."


"In any given speech community, speakers will usually exhibit many beliefs about language: that one language is older, more beautiful, more expressive or more logical than another―or at least more suitable for certain purposes―or that certain forms and usages are 'correct' while others are 'wrong,' 'ungrammatical,' or 'illiterate.' They may even believe that their own language was a gift from a god or a hero."
"Such beliefs rarely bear any resemblance to objective reality, except insofar as those beliefs create that reality: if enough English speakers believe that ain't is unacceptable, then ain't is unacceptable, and, if enough Irish speakers decide that English is a better or more useful language than Irish, they will speak English, and Irish will die."
"It is because of facts like these that some, especially sociolinguists, are now arguing that folk-linguistic beliefs should be taken seriously in our investigation―in great contrast to the usual position among linguists, which is that folk beliefs are no more than quaint bits of ignorant nonsense."

(R.L. Trask, Language and Linguistics: The Key Concepts, 2nd ed., ed. by Peter Stockwell. Routledge, 2007)

Folk Linguistics as an Area of Academic Study

"Folk linguistics has not fared well in the history of the science, and linguists have generally taken an 'us' versus 'them' position. From a scientific perspective, folk beliefs about language are, at best, innocent misunderstandings of language (perhaps only minor impediments to introductory linguistic instruction) or, at worst, the bases of prejudice, leading to the continuation, reformulation, rationalization, justification, and even the development of a variety of social justices.
"There is no doubt that comments on language, what [Leonard] Bloomfield called 'secondary responses,' may both amuse and annoy linguists when they are made by nonprofessionals, and there is no doubt, as well, that the folk are not happy to have some of these notions contradicted (Bloomfield's 'tertiary response')...
"The tradition is much older, but we shall date interest in folk linguistics from the 1964 UCLA Sociolinguistics Conference and [Henry M.] Hoenigswald's presentation there entitled 'A proposal for the study of folk-linguistics' (Hoenigswald 1966).

. . . we should be interested not only in (a) what goes on (language), but also in (b) how people react to what goes on (they are persuaded, they are put off, etc.) and in (c) what people say goes on (talk concerning language). It will not do to dismiss these secondary and tertiary modes of conduct merely as sources of error. (Hoenigswald 1966: 20)

Hoenigswald lays out a broadly conceived plan for the study of talk about language, including collections of the folk expressions for various speech acts and of the folk terminology for, and the definitions of, grammatical categories such as word and sentence. He proposes uncovering folk accounts of homonymy and synonymy, regionalism and language variety, and social structure (e.g., age, sex) as reflected in speech. He suggests that particular attention be paid to folk accounts of the correcting of linguistic behavior, especially in the context of first-language acquisition and in relation to accepted ideas of correctness and acceptability."

(Nancy A. Niedzielski and Dennis R. Preston, Introduction, Folk Linguistics. De Gruyter, 2003)

Perceptual Dialectology

"[Dennis] Preston describes perceptual dialectology as 'a sub-branch' of folk linguistics (Preston 1999b: xxiv, our italics), which focuses on non-linguists' beliefs and perceptions. He proposes the following research questions (Preston 1988: 475-6):

a. How different from (or similar to) their own do respondents find the speech of other areas?
b. What do respondents believe the dialect areas of a region to be?
c. What do respondents believe about the characteristics of regional speech?
d. Where do respondents believe taped voices to be from?
e. What anecdotal evidence do respondents provide concerning their perception of language variety?

There have been many attempts to investigate these five questions. Although in the past perceptual dialectology has been neglected as an area of research in countries such as the UK, more recently several studies have specifically examined perception in this country (Inoue, 1999a, 1999b; Montgomery 2006). The development of perceptual study in the UK could be seen as a logical extension of Preston's interest in the discipline, which in turn could be viewed as a revival of 'traditional' perceptual dialectology research pioneered in Holland and Japan."

(Chris Montgomery and Joan Beal, "Perceptual Dialectology." Analysing Variation in English, ed. by Warren Maguire and April McMahon. Cambridge University Press, 2011)

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Nordquist, Richard. "The Definition and Examples of Folk Linguistics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). The Definition and Examples of Folk Linguistics. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Definition and Examples of Folk Linguistics." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).