Anthro 33: Culture and Communication

  Study Questions for Language Myths
L. Bauer and Peter Trudgill. Penguin Books.

[Updated January 17, 2005]

General guidelines

  1. The chapters in this book, which was written for a general audience, should be easy to read and understand regardless of your background in linguistics or anthropology. Each chapter demonstrates that something that is said to be a commonplace or myth about language, in fact, turns out to be either wrong or difficult to support with empirical research. The effort in reading should be devoted to (i) remember the argument presented by the author(s), (ii) extract some general lessons about how language really works (for example, one recurring message is that language varies across time and space and therefore it is important to have a sense of the context in which language is used before making generalizations about what languages are like or what specific categories of speakers do); (iii) think about whether there was something left out in the argument presented by the author(s) of each short essay.
  2. For example, in Myth 1: The meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change, Peter Trudgill does a good job to show that changes in meanings are inevitable and that context helps us distinguish between different uses of the same word or expression. But he does not explore the more fundamental question of why some speakers have such strong feelings about the fact that the meaning of a word should not be allowed to change. Any ideas?
  3. Here is a list of questions to keep in mind while reading the chapters (I have borrowed them from my friend and colleague Larry M. Hyman, who uses this book in one of his linguistics courses at UC Berkeley).
  4. What is the myth?

    Do you believe it is real?

    How does this myth manifest itself?

    Can you think of examples not cited in the text?

    Were there any concepts that were not clear to you?

    Was there anything you disagreed with in the chapter?

    Were there any implications of the myth that were not discussed?

    Should anything be done to educate people about the myth? What?