Having been a member of the online language enthusiast community for a while now I can state confidently that the vast majority of individuals are astoundingly supportive and open minded when it comes to one another, learning and language or culture related sciences. The community as a whole exhibits a high degree of overall intelligence and curiosity, and that’s what I love about it the most.
There are, however, a lot of topics and issues within languages, linguistics and other related areas in which misinformation runs rampant. In an attempt to thwart the onslaught of ignorance in the language community, I’ve made a short list of some of the stupid things we all need to stop saying about languages.
1. My language is the oldest language in the world!
In the anthropological and linguistic world we like to think of ourselves as scientists. Scientists pursue facts about the universe through empirical, methodical and falsifiable research. We try to see past the objective and attempt to shed off the shackles that nationalism may often instill in us.
It grinds my bones in such a horrendous fashion that there are so many people who let their nationalism and patriotism cloud their ability to see essentially universally accepted, scientific facts.
There’s nothing wrong with having pride in your language and heritage, appreciating its cultural significance, being fascinated by its history. In fact, that’s wonderful.
But if you tell me one more time that your language is the oldest language, or that all other language stemmed from yours, I’m going to start slapping you because you are incredibly wrong.
This sentimentality tends to stem from individuals whose cultures were wracked by conflict and civil strife. It’s easy to see why nationalism plays a role in these individual lives and why language is one of their central arguing points. Language – being so intrinsically attached to culture – is often what divides “us” from”them” and it has always been used as a weapon of separatism and sometimes oppression.
But just because your people went through a bloody civil war and changed the boundaries and way of life in your country, doesn’t mean that you get to spout unscientific bullsh*t.
Your language is not the remnant of a lost continent that sank into the Indian Ocean. The ancient symbols etched into stones left over by the Vinča civilization are not proven to encode language, and while really cool, are not proof of the world’s earliest writing. That award still goes to the Sumerians.
I’m sorry if that somehow offends your national pride, but things aren’t necessarily true just because you want them to be. They aren’t true because a few equally nationalistic “scientists” offer “evidence” (that everyone, everywhere refutes) that supports your fantasies.
Your cultures’ histories, both ancient and modern, are really cool and they deserve to be celebrated. Your legends and lore and pride are all wonderful things that should be cherished and maintained. However when it comes to the refuting of scientific facts, claiming pseudoscientific and historically inaccurate drivel as fact is one stupid thing we all need to stop saying about languages.
2. Linguistic superiority
On a similar note, linguistic superiority puts forth the notion that one’s language is somehow “better” than other languages for X, Y and Z reasons.
This is, likewise, usually brought on by a sense of nationalism and pride in one’s culture and history. And once again there’s nothing wrong in having that pride except when it comes at the expense of someone else.
One of the most common occurrences of this phenomenon is when transitioning between the “Old World” and “New World” with languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and English. It seems that there persists a certain degree of post colonial resentment between both “parent” country and its former colony.
Nowhere, I think, is this tension more visible than between Brazil and Portugal.
Brazilian Portuguese, much like American English and the various dialects of Spanish spoken throughout the Americas, has changed drastically from its initial “form” and while still mutually intelligible, has really managed to highlight tension. Portugal accusing Brazil of somehow “bastardizing” its language.
Likewise I’ve been hearing for years the way Europeans talk about American English vs British English as though we’re a culture of uncouth savages, redneck cowboys and uneducated louts incapable of “proper speech”.
This leads me to my next point. Linguistic superiority can also be heard within a single language dialect and region in the form of change and tradition, and it’s something that even I have been guilty of from time to time.
Languages are constantly evolving, which is one of the coolest things to watch in my humble opinion. Accepting this fact is essential to understanding your own culture and nowhere is this more evident than the changes brought about by technology in the last 20 years.
But as always, stodgy old people and prescriptivist elitists feel the need to look down upon those who use text speak, emojis or other mutations of existing terms that have managed to bleed through their digital bonds and into mainstream speech. You can read more about that here in an article I wrote called “OMG, Texting Isn’t Ruining English!
Like I said, I could be accused of this as well, and will try to make a concerted effort not to cringe the next time some 18 year old says “bae”.
A language is a language. All languages are equal in their value. Some may seem more globally (and I hate using this term) relevant, but no language is “bad” and no language is inferior to another.
3. Polyglots and linguists and interpreters and translators are not the same thing.
Polyglot is a relatively arbitrary term used to describe someone who speaks fluently several languages. It’s kind of hard to actually determine outright where one goes from being just a regular old, garden variety multilingual and when they level up to “polyglot”. My personal opinion is that it’s 4, but it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this argument.
A linguist on the other hand is a scientist who studies every aspect of language but may not actually speak more than one. While it is common that linguists are also polyglots, or at least multilingual, it’s definitely not a prerequisite. It’s the difference between being a sports analyst and an actual athlete, and while yes, these analysts do often have first hand experience as players, they are not required to be.
Linguists in particular seem to be the most bothered by this oft failed distinction, taking some degree of offense by being lumped in with their “less academically inclined” counterparts.
Similarly, interpreters and translators are also not the same thing but are so frequently lumped together.
While some translators are also interpreters I would argue that the majority of them are not.
The easiest way to remember the distinction is to recognize that interpreters handle spoken language and translators handle written language. A translator will translate your documents from one language into another. They’ll make sure books are available across languages and generally deal with things that involve the written word. They are usually quite fluent in the language(s) that they translate between and are probably very skilled speakers, and yes, sometimes they are also interpreters,
Interpreters are the people you think of when you see the UN in movies or when you see soldiers in a foreign country interacting with the natives through a third person. Interpreters deal primarily with the spoken word which, believe it or not, requires a different skill set to do properly. Interpreters are sometimes said to have a harder job because they don’t have the luxury of taking the time they need to research a difficult word or idiom and they have to deal directly and immediately with various dialects of their target language.
It really just boils down to knowing your damn vocabulary. Know the difference, and stop saying this stupid thing.
If you’re still confused you can read this article that goes into more depth about the differences between these four things.
4. Untranslatable words
This stupid thing surrounds those ever popular articles and pictures that say something that seems inspirational or introspective and are said to be un-translatable.
Once again, we’re messing up what translation means. Everything can be translated, sometimes it just takes more than a single word. This should be readily apparent considering the articles themselves explain what the word is.
If you can explain to me what it means, it’s obviously translatable.
Another way that this stupid statement gets to me is because English is an utterly enormous language and even I, as a native speaker, could probably learn a new word every day for the rest of my life and not run out of new words. English recently passed the million word mark.
This leads me to believe that many of these “untranslatable” words might in fact have English counterparts, and that whoever designed the article for its fruity woooo factor simply didn’t look hard enough.
Who knows, maybe I’m wrong. But until I find actual evidence to the contrary I’m going to classify this as another stupid thing we need to stop saying.
**Edit** It is worth mentioning that there are a small number exceptions to this complaint which have to do with small things like genders not really corresponding across languages. These can still be explained but may require a footnote or an entire re-wording of the passage to do so adequately.
5. Differenze Linguistiche memes
Lets compare Spanish, French, English, German, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Italian, Swedish, Catalan and Finnish.
If you know anything about these languages you’ll already know where I’m going with this, and you’ve already identified which one of these things is not like the other. If that’s the case this article wasn’t really written for you. Congratulations!
It’s kinda cool to see the way that languages vary across a language family. It’s fun to identify cognates, especially when you’re learning a language that is foreign to you and struggling desperately for something easy.
In case you haven’t figured out what’s going on yet, Finnish is not an Indo European language and as such doesn’t really have much in common with any of the other languages that I just listed.
Europe is overwhelmingly populated by a language family called “Indo European” that stems from an ancient language linguists like to call “Proto-Indo European”. It is the common ancestor for almost all European languages.
The notable exceptions are Basque, which is a super cool isolate (meaning we haven’t identified successfully any other languages related to it. Isolates are rare and really interesting), Hungarian, Estonian and Finnish, the latter three of which belong to a language family called Finno-Ugric that also includes Sami and a bunch of small, minority languages throughout Northern Russia that you’ve probably never heard of.
Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian are totally unrelated to all other major languages in Europe and while they have adopted a small number of loanwords from their IE neighbors, comparing them and acting shocked when the word is quite different and foreign sounding to our Indo European ears is really quite stupid.
Similarly, it can even happen within the language family. Comparing Germanic languages (like those found in Scandinavia, German or English) to Romance languages (like Spanish, French and Italian), is equally pointless.
And sometimes we don’t even stay in Europe.
Why would you even bother trying to compare Bangla to Portuguese? Are you surprised that they’re different? Did you expect them to be similar? Really? Really?
Language is a huge source of national pride for people all over the world. It ties us to our identities; our histories and our modern cultures. It narrates our stories in the present as we evolve as a species and a global community.
But for some reason there is a plethora of misinformation, downright ignorance and woo that surrounds the language learning community like a plague of vapid locusts.
So, can we please stop saying these stupid things?
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