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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Misconceptions about the English language #1

As a person who is engrossed in language study everyday, I get some strange questions. More often, though, I hear some really strange statements. It's hard to correct people's misconceptions about language (especially their own language) in public; it's a douche thing to do, really. So I'll get on my soapbox and vent a bit, and hopefully along the way I'll give you all some new ways to think about the English language. I plan on making this a series, maybe pointing out a couple of things a week.

First, let's talk dirty about pronouns. Grammarians have been griping about how English speakers (commoners, as they see it) fail to use the proper pronoun when speaking of a person of an unspecified gender. To them, he stands as the default pronoun. Example:

Jim: Hey, do you want to go eat Mexican tonight?
Erica: Well, I would, but I told a friend we would hang later...
Jim: Oh, tell ___ that ____ is welcome to come along!

Grammarians would have you say "tell him that he is welcome". But do people use that? Hell no, it comes off as sexist and stuffy; in most cases, we use they. Some people use he or she (or even worse, s/he in writing), but the majority of people find that far too awkward.

Well, turns out, we've always used "they" (and by always, I mean since about the fourteenth century). Here's the bad part: guess what sexist, pig-headed piece of crap came up with this rule...

A woman! In fact, Anne Fisher, the first female grammarian.

Next on our list is the idea that English "comes from" Latin. FALSE. Actually, Latin and English are in different language families entirely (although they are both Indo-European languages). We do have a very large repertoire of words in our language that are Latin in origin (we acquired many through French... more on that tomorrow), but where your words come from does not determine your language family. English is a West Germanic language, and our grammar is far more similar to languages of the Germanic ilk than it is to the so called Romance languages.

Now, about accents. Have you ever wondered how or when Americans lost their English accents? I've met a couple of Brits who've either told me it's a shame we Americans don't talk like the British anymore, or that Americans speak a kind of English that really isn't English. Both are misguided because, in reality, Americans never talked like the British of today do. Why? Because, when the American colonies started up, the British accents were very different than they are currently; Americans we're isolated from the rest of the English-speaking world, so they retained much of the eighteenth century features longer than their European cohorts . We've actually been changing in different directions for quite some time now, but for a while there the American public spoke more like eighteenth century England than the contemporary England did!

That's it for now. Until tomorrow, when I'll talk about French's very unique influence of English.

PS: A book about the quirks and history of the English language written for the layperson that I highly recommend people pick up is Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, which has quickly become a field favorite. It's easy to read, well-informed, and one of the reasons I became a linguist.

34 comments:

  1. I like your style mate keep up the good work.
    Cheers

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  2. English is such a weird language...
    If your ever interested in Japanese though you should check out my blog sometime!
    studyanime.blogspot.com

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  3. I never saw the big deal with the first issue but the second point was neat.

    I was forever be laughing at the last point though, oh the irony.

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  4. english is so complicated compared to spanish. not much leeway with words

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  5. Love the post.
    Funny thing is, I had a discussion with someone recently about the origin of English. They said that it came from Latin. When I mentioned that it's origins are related to the Germanic language, they said "Bah, no it's not". It's kind of scary how many people don't know this.

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  6. Nice post, i found it an interesting read!

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  7. Love coming here and read ur stuff!

    MOAR update?

    Come visit my blog:

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  8. language is such a complicated topic to deal with, there are so many of them, and translating from one to another doesnt always add up, potentially creating huge barriers... see Engrish. lol

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  9. people need to learn better English imo. Its shocking how many people misuse your and you're...or even the dreaded 'should of'.

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  10. really interesting blog man, i studied english language at college. keep up the good work.

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  11. I filled in the blanks with him/he, does that make me sexist, or just good at speaking the language?

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  12. @skulldragon3200

    neither.

    @Anne on a mouse, the native speakers of a language as a whole (not grammar nazi's) get to decide how a language is used. People have been doing things of that sort for centuries, and it isn't going anywhere. And there have been many studies that show that a person's use of 'non-standard' forms is no reflection of their intelligence.

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  13. I've always enjoyed the sound of 'he/him/his' more than the typical 'they/their/them.' I respect the whole gender equality in writing movement, but I personally, even being a female, prefer the he/him/his method.

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  14. This is relevant to my interest.

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  15. amazing!
    one of your best posts ive read so far

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  17. Took me a bit to catch up on your blog after being away for a week, but as before, wonderful posts.

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  18. You have pretty good points in there. Following your blog daily for now on!

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  19. Great post, keep them coming!
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  20. informative blog, keep doing what you're doing.

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  21. As an English minor, I completely agree with you.

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  22. okay looks promising, get that lingo shit right :)

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  23. no wonder i never finnished highschool

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  24. wait a second... "tell they that they should come" it's "a friend" -singular.
    I don't get it :-s

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