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The Sunday Salon: Life in Capsule Form & Review: Language Myths

July 5, 2009

Sunday, that time of the week where things become introspective, where people knuckle down and get ready for that Monday-morning blues.

I went out last night for a friend’s birthday. We went out to a nightclub. I don’t belong at nightclubs, I feel like a fly constantly berating people. It’s too loud, too sweaty, too full. Do nightclubs have a quota of how many people are allowed in and then, tongue-wangling, put more people through the doors? The thing about nightclubs is it all seems to be some kind ritualistic dance orgy that I haven’t received the rules to yet. It’s also boring. I am able to dance, but there always seems to be a nagging uncertainty in the back of my mind saying what the hell are you doing? I’m just not for nightclubs. I’m not designed for them. I can’t switch my prohibitions off and be swayed by the numbing, post-apocalyptic thudding of the music.

I’m more at home in a pub; a nice, quiet, homely pub. You can hear yourself, and actually see. Also, you don’t have these curious looking drinks with weird names and off-putting colours. Hmm.

Publisher: Penguin

Paperback: 189 pages

I’ve been reading Language Myths this week and it’s been uniformly brilliant and informative. A collection of essays by leading linguists on assumptions, myths and downright silly biases that have been around for donkey-years, the essays, written by erudite scholars who get to the point and expel each myth with succinctness.

The subjects of the essays vary from the misinformed to the idiotic. Peter Trudgil in his essay “The Meaning of Words Should Not be Allowed to Vary or Change” expertly demolishes the myth that language should be frozen in time because it is undesirable to have change. As Trudgil points out:

All languages change all the time. It is not very well understood why this is the case, but it is a universal characteristic of human languages. […] Language changes their pronunciations through time. Five hundred years ago, all English speakers used to pronounce the k in knee – now nobody does. Grammatical structures also change. English speakers used to say Saw you my son?

He goes on to explain that it is the context that allows the receiver to understand the meaning and usage of a word. It is usually very hard to be confused by what a word means providing it is the right context. He writes at the end that

Words do not mean what we as individuals might wish them to mean, but what speakers of the language in general want them to mean. […] Language change cannot be halted. Nor should the worriers feel obliged to try to halt it. Languages are self-regulating systems which can be left to take care of themselves. They are self-regulating because their speakers want to understand each other and be understood.

Another interesting essay is “Women Talk Too Much” by Janet Holmes. I like to think of myself, among other things, as having a feminist leaning. Although I dislike the notion of giving someone a name to attribute them, I have written a couple of essays on feminism, my favourite one was one I did on the affect of patriarchy in cybernetic systems and on the post-human woman. I digress.

In the essay, Holmes comes from a sociolinguistic slant in which she writes about the different situations when a woman talks or doesn’t talk. She writes that women are more likely to be silent in situations where social status or power can be affected. In situations where talk is more of the intimate, where the purpose is “establishing or maintaing social contact with others, making social connections, developing and reinforcing friendships and intimate relationships.”

It’s not as clear-cut as that, naturally, and Holmes rightly points that out. However, men are attracted to being the power-centre, males fight (figuratively and literally) with one another for domination over a group. It is also acknowledged that the spoken word carries a huge precedence in Western society. Think of all the books and CDs on improving your vocabulary. We put in an awful amount of time in trying to increase of the complexity of our words to try to be constantly in a state of one-upmanship. I think for men, in particular, having the right words at the right time is vitally important.

Of course, women don’t only talk in personal situations, and men don’t always talk in power-play situations either.

I am curious about the ratio between men and women writers in the blogosphere. I do tend to see a high percentage of blogs written by women (I’m talking about blogs on books) rather than men. Is this because the discussion of books belongs to a more introspective, personal situation rather than a domineering one or is it something else.

Anyway, this collection of essays is a must of anyone with a passing interest in language; which should be everyone. It is written by linguists but it is intended for the layperson, the essays are simple enough to understand and linguistic terminology is adequately explained. I would give this book four stars and not five because, while excellent, I kept wishing the essays would be longer. Still, a must read.

If you liked this then I would recommend The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, a surprisingly witty travel through the field of linguistics, many of the things talked about in Language Myths pop up as well. Also, David Crystal’s Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language is one of the best reference books you can buy.

Is there any language myths you can think of and have you ever believed in any?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2009 8:30 pm

    I am not a nightclub kind of girl either. I am actually more of a homebody. At 26 most people do not understand. lol

    I love books, watching some TV, playing with our cats, being on the internet, and spending time with my family. 🙂

  2. July 5, 2009 8:58 pm

    Language Myths sounds great. I’m going to check my library’s website for it now. Nightclubs never really appealed to me, either.

  3. July 5, 2009 10:12 pm

    Brittanie – same here. I’m not really a party animal but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun, just not in a drunken antics way.

    JoAnn – it really is, very informative if your library has it then get it now….:)

  4. July 5, 2009 11:13 pm

    That feminist essay sounds intriguing! I’m curious about the huge presence of women book bloggers vs. men ones too.

    (BTW, I love your blog’s new look!!!)

    • July 6, 2009 12:21 am

      Yeah, I wonder if there are some figures about what the majority gender is. It’ll be interesting in finding out whether it is a big difference and why. I’ll have to do some research.

      Thanks, I thought it was high time I changed the look. Personally I would like to design my blog from the ground-up, but you can’t with the free version of WordPress.

  5. July 6, 2009 8:34 pm

    Interesting book. I’ll have to remember it.
    Most of the blogs I read are by women. I don’t seek out male written blogs but are pleasantly surprised when I find one.

    • July 6, 2009 8:45 pm

      Do you think this is because women are more prone to discussing interpersonal topics such as books. I wonder if there is a connection between physical bookgroups and online, virtual bookgroups…do they have more women than men. I can feel a blog post coming on.

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