Ling102 - Week 1

What is a language myth?

  • Beliefs about language that are produced and reproduced within communities
  • Become part of folk wisdom
  • Inconsistent with empirically observed linguistic facts
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Myth 1 - posh don't drop letters

  • often not dropped - replaced by a glottal stop
  • everyone drops some 't's e.g. 'letter' = 'le'er'
  • nobody drops all e.g. 'tip top'
  • some more likely to be dropped than others - depends on surrounding sounds

For example - The Queen

  • example of the word 'and'
  • sometimes dropped sometimes not depends on surrounding sounds
  • e.g. said in 'me and my family, dropped in 'death and the void'
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Why is the context important?

  • historically - f pronunciation dependent on context
  • either pronounced f or v
  • dropping some letters is seen as prestigious e.g. 'trait'
  • or is associated with upper class speech e.g. 'ospital'

myths ignore complexity of actual usage

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Historical roots of letter dropping (1)

strang(1970) on 'h' dropping

  • "[...]not till the close of the 18th century does explicit condemnation of 'dropping h's begin"
  • "with the spread of education a new view about h's comes to dominate usafe...if it is in the spelling it must be pronounced...can only prevail when spelling itself is highly regularised"
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Historical roots of letter dropping (2)

Lindley Murray, An English Grammar 1808

  • "It is a good rule, with respect to pronunciation, to adhere to the written words, unless custom has clearly decided otherwise

Samuel Johnson, Preface, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

  • "The best general rule is, to consider those as the most elegant speakerts who deviate least from the written words"
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The Underlying Belief System

Standard language ideology” (Milroy and Milroy 1998; Lippi-Green 1994)

“The chief characteristic of a standard ideology is the belief that there is one and only one correct spoken form of the language, modelled on a single correct written form” (Milroy 1999:174)

  • would have been absurd to Elizabeth the first as there was no universal structure that everyone followed

“[…] the standard-language ideology in Britain seems still to be focused primarily on class.” (Milroy 1999:192)

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Myth 2 - American English is ruining British Engli

Prince Charles (1995)

  • "very corrupting"
  • "we must act now to ensure that English...maintains its position as the world language well into the next century"

  • What language do Americans speak? It sure as hell isn't English and it seems to be getting worse than ever"

  • When asking for something: Can I get? (I often hear people in this country using this)
  • An American explaining they do not have something you have asked for: I don't got any.=I do not got any
  • An American saying "I am going to...." Ima go...
  • An American way of saying "you all": Yall (sounds even better when used with "all of yall“ = all of you all)
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Is English English following American English?

  • 'movie' taking over 'film'
    • Oxford English corpus
    • Usage of both movie and film increasing over the years - one not better than the other - people going to cinema more
  • the modal verbs (e.g. could, would) in British English are following American English
    • Use of British English could be moving towards American English but could simply be coincidental as it has not yet been established
  • Leech, Geoffrey N. et al. (2009) Change in Contemporary English: A Grammatical Study (CUP)

    “We have come across many examples in this book where the generality of American influence on British English cannot easily be denied, but where it is far from eclipsing the independent developments found in this and other national standards.” (p.259)

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The Standard Language Ideology

  • writing is permanent and of high value


  • change is bad, new language forms are of low value
  • language change equates with language decay (Milroy 1999)
  • american english forms are often relatively new
  • newness is more salient than a word's provenance
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Prescriptivism and Descriptivism


  • involves identifying certain varieties/features which are 'prescribed' (to be followed) 
  • others can be proscribed - avoided


  • task is to describe the facts based on observation, experimentation and argument
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Myth 3 - People are abandoning polite English

  • language becoming ruder
  • rudeness associated with lower class linguistic behaviour
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Myth 3 - Historical background

politness and social hierarchy

  • politeness = elegance of manners; gentility; good breeding (Samuel Johnson, 1755)
  • high status people = polite

politeness and correctness - associations

  • if it is in the writing it should be said
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Myth 3 - network of beliefs

  • working class are rough, aggressing and uneducated 
  • above definition was traditional meaning of rude
  • rough, aggressive and uneducated people are rude
  • rude behaviour is not nice or correct 
  • social class is dependent on assumptions
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Myth 3 - is it true the English are becoming more

culpeper and archer 2010

  • study of 1,200 requests in trial proceedings and drama from around Shakespeare's time
  • drama and trials were the only methods of media available with relevant evidence
  • 1 in 3 requests were made with simple imperative
  • compared to today which is 1 in 10
  • conclusion is - today we are actually more polite

politeness is also about perception - how appropriately something is said etc

problem - what counts as appropriate is changing

old values clash the new - some circumstances misunderstood

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Standard language ideology revisited

  • area that deals with what non-academics are thinking
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A folk theory of the English language (standard la

sociological correlates

  •  higher classes are often associated with being better educated and therefore more literate
  • the opposite can be said in terms of lower classes, which have been linked to illiteracy and lack of education


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Reversed standard language ideology

  • practice on the myth that posh people pronounce all the letters in words
  • reversed with respect to evaluative beliefs
  • evoked in local contexts
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Academic facts; or when a fact is not a fact

Rayson, Leech and Hodges (1997) - social differentiation in the use of English vocabulary

  • analyses of the conversational component of the British National Corpus

study of lexical variation according to the user

  • BNC - 100 million words of british english
  • conversational subcorpus - 4.5 million words - 153 respondents sampled according to region, gender, age and social group - based around sociological concepts


  • effect of addressee
  • reliance on vocab frequency lists
  • simplicity of transcription system
  • uneven dispersion
  • data collection issues
  • problems with social groupings
  • statistical problems
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