Language Myths – Some Languages are Just not Good Enough


I came across a book today, “Language Myths” edited by Laurie Bauer & Peter Trudgill. This book discusses a list of myths about languages, among them the myth that “Some languages are just not good enough” written by Ray Harlow.

Harlow gives a background of this myth by retelling the transitions from Greek to Latin, Latin to Modern European languages (English, German, French, Spanish, Russian, etc), and English to Maori in New Zealand. He said that there is widespread scepticism about the possibility of an emerging, vernacular or minority language "being able to express the ideas and trains of thought" of a well-established language, the reason being that the vernacular language is "too unpolished, immature and lacking in resources to be able to convey the abstract thought and breadth of knowledge usually expressed" in the major language, thus the minority language "is simply not capable of being used as an official language, or as the language of education [ditto communication and publication] beyond the very basic level."

He enumerated the bases of this myth as follows and poised counter-examples:

1. Due to the language structure. He used German and Romansh in Switzerland as examples here. Because German can make compound words very easily and Romansh can’t do this readily and has to use phrases as a way of combining ideas, some Romansh speakers believe their language “is not good enough to be used in the really technical areas of life because German is able to construct clearly defined single words for technical ideas, Romansh is not”. Counter-argument: French and Italian have no problem at all although both have the same characteristics as Romansh, and Romansh is actually being used to express “very technical” ideas in the field of alpine agriculture for centuries. “Essentially, languages may differ as to the way various aspects of structures are handled, but they are all capable of expressing the same range of meanings.”

2. Due to the language’s aesthetics and status (ugly, beautiful, rude, barbaric, etc) . He used the emerging European languages as examples here. These languages were described during the Middle Ages as “redolent of the stench of dung and the sweat of the warrior”, thus incapable of assuming Latin’s role. Ditto for the popular views that Italian is elegant, sophisticated, lively; German is harsh, dour; French is logical, romantic, cultured; and aborigines speak primitive languages. Counter-argument: People transfer to a language or dialect their opinions of its speakers. This was expanded by Howard Giles and Nancy Niedzielski, who wrote the refutation of the myth Italian is Beautiful, German is Ugly: “The pleasantness, or otherwise, of  a language variety (and hence the emotive qualities associated with it) are contingent on the social attributes of its speakers.” and wrote further:

In terms of social connotation hypothesis then, standard British English and French are not inherently superior or elegant forms of communications but, rather, are so largely due to the fact that the Court and other spheres of social, commercial and political influence flourished in particular geographic centers (viz. London and Paris, respectively). Had they been established in other areas, these very same so-called standard varieties would have been relatively trivialized, perhaps suffering the same fate as other urban dialects like Glaswegian.

3. Due to the inability to discuss technical subjects in a language.  He used Maori and English as examples here, where there is no occasion or need to discuss nuclear physics in Maori, thus the myth that it’s inherently faulty and that English is better than Maori, therefore, Maori is not good enough at least for some purposes. Counter-argument: Confusion between an inherent property of language with a historically derived feature of a language. To discuss a particular topic in a language, that language must possess words or vocabulary referring to the various aspects of that topic. “All languages are capable of the same types of vocabulary expansion to deal with whatever new areas of life their speakers need to talk about.” Knowledge of history will reveal that Old English and Middle English also cannot be used to discuss nuclear physics or computers, and that through time, English acquired the necessary resources to discuss computers, nuclear physics and many other topics. “It has not been there as an inherent feature of English.” Many technical and non-technical words used in English came from some other languages and incorporated into English, as it’s perhaps the language with the most borrowed vocabulary of the major languages. But a language can also develop its vocabulary from within, using its existing resources, if (a) borrowing will hurt the language or (b) too much borrowing will put off the intended audience and the writer and his works can not be readily understood. He cited Cicero who wrote about the ideas of Greek philosophy by (i ) taking Latin words and deliberately assigning a technical meaning to it  [e.g., ratio], or (ii) inventing new words made up of Latin elements to correspond to Greek ideas [qualitas].   

On the whole, I agree with his essay, except that I think his counter-argument for #3 somewhat weakens his counter-argument for #1. If Romansh elect to develop its own vocabulary from within and not borrow those German words, it would be unable to form compound words so must coin new words or assign new meanings to existing words. It cannot just rely on phrases to express concepts. Being able to form compound words is an added advantage over phrases that are long, gawky and bulky. Besides, languages handle phrases differently than words, and phrases cannot appear in all instances where words appear.

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2 Responses to “Language Myths – Some Languages are Just not Good Enough”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    I can’t agree with you there. German compound nouns just happen to be written solid: internally they have their own syntax in the form of glue endings (historically derived from plural and genitive endings, but now lexically specific), and can be just as “long, gawky, and bulky” as phrases in any language. Consider monsters like Überseedeutschlehrerinternetmailinglistenfragenstellundantwortkundigen ‘people skilled in asking and answering questions on the Internet mailing list for German teachers outside Germany’.

  2. vagabonddrifter Says:

    Thanks John. Seems like you’re right about German compound word syntax, as described here http://german.about.com/od/nounsandcases/a/German-Compound-Words.htm. I am more familiar with English compound nouns, which normally does not have glue endings. In this case, I might have to rethink what I thought are compound nouns in English. For example, if the German -s- genitive glue (Das Säuglingsgeschrei/ the newborn’s cry) can interpose inside compound words, then the English phrase “bill of lading” could be a compound word then.

    In this case, it would be harder to distinguish English compound words that are phrases from other phrases that does not behave as a ‘lexical’ unit.


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