5 Stupid Things We All Need to Stop Saying About Languages

These 5 things about languages are stupid
 

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 Stupid Things We All Need to Stop Saying About Languages

 

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?

Conclusion

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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  • As much as I’m probably one of the biggest enthusiasts for Polish out there, I really, but really hate being told that “Polish is the hardest language of the world because not even native speakers use it well”.
    *headdesk* It could be under special circumstances. However, with my background, Polish has been hard, but not the hardest probably. In fact, in comparison to Spanish there are easier things in Polish than in Spanish. As someone who speak one of the “less popular” Spanish dialects (which often has a negative perception even from inside my society), it also sucks to hear people who claim there is something as “neutral Spanish” and that can be located in a certain region of the world. Sure, with foreigners (regardless of origin) I won’t tend to use certain words or speak slower, but still, I’d be speaking as a Chilean (with proper aspirations or using voseo when needed and so)… and the times I’ve read that Spaniards speak with a lisp (no! no! noooo!).

    Anyway, thank you Brian for posting this jewel. You deserve that ovation.

    • Ugh, now that it’s posted I can think of more stupid things that need to be debunked.

      The whole “Neutral Accent” thing may make a really good post of its own. Thanks for commenting as always!

      • Kristopher Logan

        May I lobby for another candidate: “They speak better ______ than we [native speakers] do!” Puh-leeze.

        • Kristopher, I’ve heard that so many times, especially at school (we couldn’t use voseo, but my teacher did use it while talking to her daughter on the phone) and its variant “oh, but you don’t sound that bad like [other native speakers from your place] do!”

    • Elizabeth Hanchett

      I concur with your comment on “neutral Spanish”. It does not exist. At all. And yes to the complaint about when people complain about Spaniards speaking with lisps. I don’t care if my Castilian accent sounds ugly, it is neither incorrect nor do I have a lisp.

    • iguska wa

      Do u really think that Polish is easier than for example Spanish? I wouldn’t say that Polish is the hardest language of the world because nobody knows all the languages so nobody can actually know that. But looking at Polish grammar (7 cases, nearly all part of speech conjugates or declinates, 3 articles etc.) I wouldn’t say that any language from Germanic or Romance languages is easier than Polish.

      • Precisely, an attitude like this one is the one that I am criticizing. I could say Polish is easier due to less verbal conjugations, no definite/indefinite articles, you can understand the role of the sentences and once you understand grammar rules, it becomes intuitive. And what it you are Ukrainian or Belarusian? Wouldn’t it be easier than German or French?
        By the way, by articles you are referring to grammatical gender, pero allá vos.

      • Norma Rigg

        All children acquire their languages at roughly the same age. This debunks the idea that any one language is more difficult than another.

  • Kristopher Logan

    Excellent article, one quibble: ‘The idea of “prestige languages” is a fallacy that needs to die out.’ The existence of “prestige” languages & dialects is not a fallacy, it’s a fact. Doesn’t (necessarily) have anything to do with notions of linguistic superiority. The language/dialect of the elite in a given community is going to be the prestige language/dialect in that community.

    • Oni

      You are completely right, but the author of this blog does not know or understand many concepts and jargon from linguistics.
      He meant prestigious in a general sense, not to do with the sociolinguistic concept.

      It wasn’t even the worst flaw (the claim about Indo-european being the ancestor to most languages was by far the worst). But I’ve long come to expect these errors from LATG from time to time.

      • I’m sorry that you feel that way. I’m going to reply to both of your comments.

        As for the prestige language comment. You’re right and I apologize for including that. I have since done further research and have removed that sentence from the article.

        As for Proto-Indo European being the ancestor of (most) European languages however, I am not wrong. It is the common ancestor of over 400 Indo European languages. If I was misleading when I said “our” languages I again apologize. I meant to indicate European languages and that was a typing error that I have adjusted.

        Nowhere in there did I say that it was the largest language family. My understanding of PIE is not lacking. I am well aware of what “proto” means.

        I made some wording errors and I have corrected them.

        Thank you for taking the time to read the article, but there’s no need to become hostile.

        LATG does not focus solely on European languages, and I will do more in the future to be a little bit more diverse about things.

  • Raffaello Del La Varis

    Disagree with the untranslatable words comment. In fact all interpreting and translation is in fact only an approximation because each language is in fact a world unto its own. You can translate something but it can´t necessarily have the shades of meaning it had in its original language imho.

    • Perhaps, but I’d like to think that it could still be made to work. Perhaps some words would be trickier than others and require a bit more of a lengthy description, but I don’t think that a language can harbor something that exclusively.

      But I could be wrong. I’ll have to go looking for that. Thanks for your comment!

    • Kristopher Logan

      But that’s true for any translation much above the level of a “No Smoking” sign. So, what? No translation because translation cannot be perfect?

  • IronMike

    Love this list. For me, I’d just be happy if people would stop with the “Eskimos have 8 million words for snow” non-sense.

    • That’s a good one. I should have included that one!

      I hear middle aged white American males have 40 words for grass though. ; )

  • Zka77

    I think these linguistic memes are just jokes. But I have to support you strongly in all the other points. They are all stupid, very stupid. Being hungarian (and therefore outlier of the indo-european set) I see a lot of #1 and #2 because being different obviously means superiority… according to some people.

    • The problem is when people repeat and repeat jokes without thinking or analyzing it that they think they are ultimate truths.

    • They are just a joke, of course. And actually when done correctly they can be educational and cause for decent discussion.The problem isn’t with the memes in and of themselves, it’s the way that certain ones are done across language families.

      One of the most common is the ones that compare Romance languages to German and then do a Hitler face when they ragescream the German word at the end.

      Did they seriously expect it to be similar? Did they really have to stereotype?

      • Olaf

        Thanks, I’m German and very offended about the “differenze linguistiche” memes. They may be funny at first if you are aware about the stupidity of their claim. .. since humor is about breaking taboos.

        But I regularly see ignorant people reposting it in order to disrespect Germans under the pretext of a joke.

        IMHO they reflect much of the ignorance of Berlusconi voters and the rampant racism problem in Italy.

        Btw I’m not Arian (mixed heritage) and learned 8 languages – 4 of them fluent. ( Which is not really a big thing because learning Italian and Brazilian Portuguese after being fluent in Spanish and French is ridiculously easy )

        These memes have nothing to do with linguistics…

        • I’m not even sure that it’s always about disrespect. I think it’s intended as harmless fun, but it has unintended implications that Germany doesn’t really appreciate.

          To be fair though, the emphasis has started to turn away from German and now seems to focusing on non Indo-European languages such as Finnish and Hungarian. Not necessarily disrespectful but still stupid.

          Thanks for your comment and for reading!

  • Algis Pijus

    Lietuvių kalba

  • Oni

    “2 Stupid Things LATG Really needs to stop saying about languages.”

    1. “language family called “Indo European” that stems from an ancient
    language linguists like to call “Proto-Indo European”.

    Maybe your misunderstanding of what a “proto” language means in historical
    linguistics can slide. It’s probably beyond the reach of this blog.
    Suffice to say, no one ever actually spoke Proto-Indo-European in ancient times. It has nothing to do with actual individual languages. That’s
    ridiculous.

    2. “It is the common
    ancestor for almost all of our languages, but not quite all.”

    Indo-European isn’t even the top language family in the world. Niger-Congo is 5 TIMES as big. Austronesian is 4 TIMES as big. It’s smaller than Sino-Tibetan. It’s barely larger than Australian or Afro-Asiatic.

    It is the common ancestor of almost all European languages. Sure, depending where you draw the “Europe” line and what percentage you consider “almost all”.

    But the only way that claim about “OUR languages” works is if you assume your readers are only European or the LATG blog ONLY covers languages of Europe.

  • Andres Rincon

    I liked this list so much, and there’s another one: people who think their native language is the hardest or easiest in the world, and this people are usually monolingual or I’m a rare case bilingual.

    • Andres Rincon

      *or in a rare case

  • Norma Rigg

    Er,……..add a 6th: Being prescriptive about language use, e.g.

    5 Stupid Things We All Need to Stop Saying About Languages
    The first six items in this headline would be challenged in my class…..I hope by the students!