Folk-Linguistics 2

June 30, 2014

Hi again, everybody! Next entry on Folk-Linguistics follows.


Very many linguists are especially interested in grammar, and in other highly structured aspects of languages such as phonology (sound-systems). The vocabulary of a language, on the other hand, is the least heavily-structured major aspect of that language, much less highly organised than the grammar or the phonology. And, because vocabulary is so lacking in structure by comparison with grammar or phonology, and thus is so ‘open-ended’, a language’s vocabulary can change much more rapidly than its grammar or its phonology. These changes involve the loss or gain of words and the development of new senses of words as culture and technology change and linguistic requirements change accordingly. Understanding such changes and other matters involving vocabulary requires very little understanding of linguistic theory or the techniques needed for describing and explaining linguistic systems. In fact, most of what non-linguists know (or think they know) about a given language involves vocabulary.

Specifically, the vast bulk of the argumentation associated with non-mainstream amateur claims about language origins and diversification (as discussed in Chapter 1 of my book Strange Linguistics) involves vocabulary, which is replete with superficial (mostly accidental) similarities and which, as noted, requires much less understanding of linguistics. Grammar and phonology are largely ignored, apparently out of ignorance.

Much the same applies to some discussion by non-linguists about e.g. possible communication with extraterrestrials; see for example Fernando J. Ballesteros’ 2010 book E.T. Talk: How Will We Communicate with Intelligent Life on Other Worlds? The grammars and phonologies of the languages invented by science-fiction and fantasy writers (with the exception of those few who have been trained in linguistics, such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Suzette Haden Elgin) are also scantily described and often misconceptualised; almost all of the clearly described features of such languages involve vocabulary.

In contrast, unless they are specifically lexicographers of one kind or another (historical, semantic, dialectological, etc.) with a particular focus on vocabulary, linguists of all kinds and persuasions tend to have only a limited interest in issues involving vocabulary (to the extent that many linguists are less than fluent even in their languages of specialisation; they are very competent in the grammar and speak with a good accent, but because they are bored by vocabulary they do not learn enough words to speak fluently). Most historical linguists are much less interested in the etymologies of words than are amateur historical dialectologists (such as the authors of popular books on the dialects of various regions). Qua linguists, at least, they are interested in an etymology if it is important in respect of some structural issue of more general significance, for example if it helps to resolve a puzzle involving the development of a sound-system. If the etymology is not specifically revealing in this way, it may be of great interest to local authors and their readers, possibly in part through its links with local culture – but not of especial concern to a linguist.

Because it can be carried on, as far as vocabulary in concerned, without specifically linguistic expertise, amateur dialectology predates professional academic dialectology and indeed modern linguistics. It goes back at least as far as John Ray in the 17th Century and has been intensively practised since around 1800 (modern academic dialectology began only in the late 19th Century). Amateur dialectologists mostly work on the usage of their own home areas; they vary greatly in respect of their degree of familiarity with contemporary academic dialectology (and the rest of modern linguistics).

Amateur dialectologists with an interest in vocabulary are in fast very useful to professional linguists in the same way that amateur comet-spotters or sunspot-mappers are useful to professional astronomers. They provide huge amounts of raw pre-theoretical data (albeit often needing to be checked and/or reformulated) which the professionals, too busy and insufficiently motivated to do such work themselves, can treat as input to their broader-brush investigations of fact and to their considerations of theory. But the amateurs, even if they are aware of professional linguistics, may not be aware of how much they themselves are valued by the professionals – especially if disparaging terms such as butterfly-collector (implying a lack of interest in or knowledge of theory) are used of them, as still occasionally happens. And (with their own typically limited awareness of linguistic structure and its significance) they may also be surprised, perplexed or frustrated at the lack of interest shown by linguists in the bulk of their work.

Like non-mainstream authors as discussed above, most amateur dialectologists and non-linguists commenting on dialect display too little awareness of the centrality of grammar (and of phonology) in respect of matters of linguistic differentiation. For instance, it is often said that ‘broad’ Cumbrian dialect is still close to Norse, and indeed intelligible to modern Icelanders or even Scandinavians; but the surviving similarities (other than general features common to all Germanic languages) involve only certain words and a few short phrases made up of these words, not grammar – and mutual intelligibility is very limited. And in the 1960s the linguist William Labov was told by elderly natives of Martha’s Vineyard (Massachusetts) that the traditional speech of the island was ‘almost a separate language’, whereas in fact its peculiarities consisted merely of a strong Eastern Massachusetts accent exemplified especially in certain locally salient words.

More next time (when pos)!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany.  Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address. 


Folk-Linguistics 1

June 23, 2014

Hi again, everybody! New series, on Folk-Linguistics (again not sure at what intervals).


The ideas about language which are popular among non-linguists (people who know little or nothing about linguistics) are known as folk-linguistics. It is, in fact, possible to regard non-mainstream amateur theories (such as those which I discuss in my book as referenced below and in my earlier series in this forum) as extreme manifestations of folk-linguistics. Most of the writers in question are people who may not know any linguistics but who think about language more than most people do, develop their own highly specific, seriously non-mainstream ideas about language, and take these ideas so seriously that they wish to persuade others of them and therefore publish on them.

More generally, folk-linguistic ideas and opinions are not necessarily mistaken, or even confused. Some of them are in fact accurate, and indeed insightful and helpful. But they often require more careful or technical formulation in the light of linguists’ findings and thinking. And in some cases they clearly are mistaken or confused, or at best dubious; some of them are in fact arguably damaging. They cannot be treated as reliably valid.

I will discuss various common specific and general folk-linguistic ideas in this series of blogs.


As I have observed before, many non-linguists (understandably but unwarrantedly) believe, or want to believe, that their own language is especially important. This ‘folk-linguistic’ viewpoint becomes a problem if they begin to study linguistics. For instance: some of my first-year Singaporean students were proud speakers of Tamil (mostly Hindus, some Christians). Tamil is the most widely used member of the South Indian ‘Dravidian’ family, an official language in Tamil Nadu and in Singapore itself, and the vehicle of a highly respected literature dating back over 2,000 years. Owing to prolonged contact within India, Tamil and other Dravidian languages have come to share some linguistic features (pronunciation and vocabulary) with the unrelated ‘Indic’ languages of North India (Indo-European) – notably with Sanskrit, which is the classical language of that region and the main classical language of Hinduism. Although scholarly views on these matters vary, the earliest speakers of the Indic languages almost certainly arrived in India to find Dravidian already current there.

There are relatively few users of Indic languages in Singapore (Punjabi-speaking Sikhs form the largest group), and Sanskrit itself is not widely known there except among Hindu pandits.

It soon became clear to me that many ethnically South Indian people such as these students are determined to believe (whatever the evidence) that Tamil was the ‘older’ of these two languages (in fact, Dravidian is often believed to have been in India since the beginning of human language) – and indeed that any feature shared by Tamil and Sanskrit must have originated in Tamil. Even when a form is shared by Tamil, Sanskrit and other Indo-European languages such as Greek with which neither Tamil nor Sanskrit had any pre-modern contact, they are unwilling to accept the obvious conclusion that it came into Tamil from Sanskrit/Indic (‘That is one way of looking at it’).

Even those more advanced Singapore Indian students who had learned about the controversy surrounding the undeciphered Indus Valley Script (which was used in a very ancient civilisation in North India and may represent Indic, Dravidian or some other language family) would almost always be unshakable in their conviction that it must represent early Tamil or at any rate Dravidian. (I later met Indic-speakers who, despite lacking specialist knowledge, were just as confident that IVS represented early Sanskrit!) My Singaporeans were also unsettled when they learned that the earliest grammars of Tamil are clearly modelled on Panini’s very sophisticated and demonstrably earlier grammar of Sanskrit (both languages have extensive and impressive indigenous grammatical traditions).

More next time (when pos)!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.