Archive for mythbusters

Tuesday, March 31st, 2020

Why is English Germanic and not a Romance Language?

Miguel Dela Pena

Sundberg, Minna. “The Indo-European & Uralic Language Families.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media, 23 Jan. 2015,

I was told even before this class, but also in an educational setting, that most of the English lexicon has Latin roots, and a few previous classes have discussed how Latin was a high-status language and was used in grammar schools in England, so I was confused why English is considered a Germanic language when Latin is not. After a bit of searching, I found that a good number of people are, too. The following are just some reasons for the classification of English:

Click here to read more

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Us Versus Them: Discrimination as Illustrated by the History of English

Rachel Petkau

The age-old issue of discrimination is reflected in language. An “us versus them” mentality is easiest to measure in words and numbers, stereotypes defined with words like “primitive” and “civilized.” Though it is obvious that discrimination has an impact on language use, it is less clear whether language has had an impact on the methods and severity used in separating groups of people. My primary object in this post is to show why the English language has not only had an impact, but has actually been a deadly tool in the establishment of negative interracial and interethnic relationships.

Click here to read more

Saturday, March 24th, 2018

Old English Is Older than Old English That is Old New English

Jamie Maclean

Image: Facebook

“Hey what classes are you taking this year?”

“A course in Old English.”

“You mean like Shakespeare?”

“No, from way before that.”

Click here to read more

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

Fact: Dictionaries describe, not prescribe.

Yin Liu

Fallacy: Dictionaries regulate language.

Image: (CC0) Pixabay.

Because I am the U of S English Department’s default ‘language’ person, questions by the general public about dictionaries usually get passed on to me. Once I was interviewed by a reporter about the latest edition of some dictionary — I think it was Merriam-Webster’s — and the words that had been added to it. The reporter wanted to know whether I thought it appropriate that words like sexting should be in ‘the dictionary’. This confronted me with such a wall of misconceptions that I didn’t know where to start busting them. Now that there is no longer a reporter in my office stressing me out, I’ll tackle the false assumptions one by one.

Click here to read more

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Fact: Nonstandard English is grammatical.

Yin Liu

Fallacy: Some very commonly used English words or structures are ungrammatical.

Huck Finn, by artist E. W. Kemble. Image: Wikimedia Commons, in public domain.

What a linguist considers ungrammatical English and what a lot of other people consider ungrammatical English are often very different. Here, for example, is a sentence (from the opening of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) that a lot of English speakers might call ‘ungrammatical’:

  • That ain’t no matter.

Here’s something that a linguist would consider ungrammatical (that’s what the little asterisk means in this case):

  • * Not does matter that.

What makes something grammatical or not? It should be straightforward: an utterance or text is grammatical if it follows the rules of grammar. The issue here, though, is what the rules of grammar are, and who makes them.

Click here to read more

Thursday, October 12th, 2017

Fact: Humans have been using technology for a lot longer than you have been alive.

Yin Liu

Fallacy: Technology is the latest electronic gadgetry.

One of my favourite forms of technology. Image: (cc) Andrew Taylor.

I’m going to save myself some extra work here and simply direct you to a blog post on my research project website: . Here’s an excerpt:

So this is a plea to hold on to that broader definition of technology and that broader view of technology. The screen on which you are reading these words is the product of modern technology, but the forms of the letters themselves are a product of medieval technological design (most modern roman fonts are based on a medieval script, Caroline minuscule), and writing itself is surely one of the most powerful technologies that humans have ever invented. To understand whatever form of electronic gadgetry happens to be trending next, we need to understand technology.

Monday, October 2nd, 2017

Fact: All natural human languages are complex.

Yin Liu

Fallacy: Some languages are more complex than others, or harder to learn.

Language is complex, but so is your brain. You can handle it. Image: NICHD/P. Basser. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

One of the basic ideas of modern linguistics is that all natural human languages are equally complex, or at least that you can’t measure complexity in a way that would allow you to rank languages from most to least complex. By ‘natural human language’ here I am including all human languages that have been used as primary languages (i.e. a person’s ‘first’ language, the one a person probably learned first and uses most often in the greatest variety of contexts), and excluding secondary language forms like pidgins or invented languages, and non-human ‘languages’ like computer code. If you think about it, the idea that all natural human languages are equally hard (or easy) to learn makes sense from the point of view of language acquisition. Human children learn their primary (spoken) languages at approximately the same rate, no matter what the language is. You don’t find that, on average, children who grow up speaking Tagalog acquire their language faster or slower than children who grow up speaking Spanish. You don’t need to be more intelligent to speak Gitxsan now than you did to speak Old Norse a thousand years ago. (You might need to be more determined, though: Gitxsan is an endangered language.)

Click here to read more

Tuesday, September 19th, 2017

Fact: Languages aren’t writing systems.

Yin Liu

Myth: English is written using the English alphabet.

There is no English alphabet. English is a language, not a writing system. It can be represented in writing in many different ways: by using an alphabet, by using Morse Code, by Braille, whatever you wish. Most commonly today, it is written using the Roman alphabet, which was originally designed to write Latin. There has been no commonly used writing system specifically designed to write English.

Behind the inaccurate phrase ‘the English alphabet’ is the misconception that there is a one-to-one correspondence between a spoken language and a written representation of that language. Reality is more complicated. A language can be written using more than one writing system; for example, Serbo-Croatian is, grammatically, essentially one language, but when it’s considered ‘Croatian’ it’s written with the Roman alphabet, and when it’s considered ‘Serbian’ it’s written with the Cyrillic alphabet. Conversely, a writing system can be used to write many different languages; for example, written Chinese is used to represent all the distinct and often mutually unintelligible Chinese languages (often called ‘dialects’ of Chinese), as well as being adapted to represent some words (kanji) in written Japanese.

At one point in its history, two possible alphabets were used for English: the runic alphabet, the futhorc, designed for Germanic languages such as English, and the Roman alphabet, designed to write Latin and adapted to write English. On the left is a detail from Oxford, St John’s College MS 17, fol. 5v. The manuscript was created in England circa 1110 and is mostly devoted to computus, the art of astronomical and calendrical calculation, but on this page is a chart of cryptic and esoteric alphabets. These two rows show symbols (graphemes) from the runic futhorc on the left and corresponding letters from the Roman alphabet on the right. By the time this manuscript was created, the Roman alphabet was the usual way of writing both Latin and English, and the runic alphabet was an oddity that not many people in England knew how to use.

The Roman alphabet is used today, with minor variations, to write a great number of different languages, many of which are not even related to each other. English is just one of them.

Click here to read more

Wednesday, September 13th, 2017

Fact: Everyone who speaks English speaks it with an accent.

Yin Liu

Myth: It is possible to speak English without an accent.

Image: (cc) bellbeefer on Flickr. Linguistic accents contain no MSG and are better for your health.

No, it isn’t. What we call an ‘accent’ is a way of pronouncing a language — in technical terms, the phonetics of a dialect. If you speak a language, you have an accent. And, unless your language is spoken by a very, very small number of people who have lived all their lives in the same place and are from the same social group and probably the same generation and never talk to anyone else, your language has varieties, called dialects, as well. Since none of those conditions applies to English, which is arguably the most widely spoken language in the world on a number of fronts, English has a huge range of dialects and, since pronunciation is a part of any dialect, English speakers have a huge range of accents as well.

But if you type ‘English without an accent’ into Google, which I did, you will discover a surprising number of hits from people on YouTube or opinionated-but-ill-informed personal websites or English-as-a-Foreign-Language educational sites that assume that it’s possible to speak accentless English. If you investigate further, you will probably discover that what these people mean by ‘English without an accent’ is ‘English that sounds like you come from a place where English is the only language’, ‘English that makes you sound conventional and uninteresting enough to get you a high-paying, high-status job in North America’, or simply ‘English that sounds like us’. In other words, if you’re an English speaker and you hear someone else speaking English ‘with an accent’, you’re simply hearing someone whose accent is different from yours. That person will hear you speaking with an accent too.

Click here to read more