Folk linguistics

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Folk linguistics is the amateur study of linguistics. The term is often used as a pejorative.

The linguist Ray Jackendoff points out that applying folk linguistics to education can be potentially damaging to the attainment of students who speak nonstandard dialects. Characterising different speech varieties as good or bad can have a serious effect.[a]

The term folk linguistics can also refer to ideological[1] ideas of language, such as nationalist[2] views of language. The scientific understanding of language by linguists often contradicts that of native speakers.[1][2]


Jackendoff (2003)[a] cites the following statements as typical examples of folk-linguistic beliefs.

  • Claim: "Parents teach their children to talk". Adults assume that children either learn language directly from their parents or via simple imitation.
    • On the contrary, research in child language acquisition shows that a child acquires language more automatically, through a systematic pattern rarely noticed by adults. Although interaction with parents, adults and other children is crucial, it is actually very difficult to "correct" a child. Instead most children are able to learn to speak native languages (including those of their peers of the same age) through a process called "acquisition".[b] Any errors noticed by a parent are often self-corrected by the child weeks or months later.
  • Claim: "Children will get confused if they try to speak more than one language". Many parents are afraid a child cannot sort out input from multiple languages.
    • In reality, children can easily become bilingual (native proficiency in two languages) if they are exposed to more than one language. There may be period of confusion, but most children are able to segregate two distinct grammars.
  • Claim: "There is a proper, correct English". Speakers generally value an educated form of the language, often its written form, and that other dialectal/spoken forms are considered structurally inferior or "sloppy", and speakers of these forms are often regarded as "stupid, lazy, sloppy, hick" or other pejorative terms.
  • Claim: "The modern language is going downhill". Purists opine that changes in the spoken language (e.g. new words, innovations in grammar, new pronunciation patterns) are generally regarded as being detrimental rather than just change.
    • In fact, living languages are not static. Their evolution is not just a modern phenomenon.

Other beliefs may include:

  • A belief that a language's grammar can negatively influence and restrict how people think. This is also known as the strong Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. Although some linguists do advocate a form of this, many linguists reject this as being too simplistic.[b] For instance, just because a language does not formally distinguish "he" vs. "she" in their personal pronouns does not mean that speakers do not distinguish and treat men and women differently. Similarly, just because English lacks a formal hodiernal tense does not mean that English speakers cannot distinguish events which occur "today" versus those on another day.
  • Examples of folk etymology such as interpreting asparagus as "sparrow-grass".[b] These are cases where speakers deduce an incorrect word origin. Another folk etymology is the assumption that the New York place name Fishkill (on Fishkill Creek) means a place to kill fish. In reality, -kill is from a Dutch word meaning "creek" (found also in river names such as Schuylkill, Pennsylvania and Wallkill, New Jersey). However the folk etymology caused animal rights groups such as PETA to lobby that the town should be renamed.[3]

See also[edit]


a. ^ Ray Jackendoff, "The Structure of Language" (PDF).

b. ^ Linguistic Purism in Germany - Folk Linguistics via the Internet Archive


  1. ^ a b Gröschel, Bernhard (2009). Das Serbokroatische zwischen Linguistik und Politik: mit einer Bibliographie zum postjugoslavischen Sprachenstreit [Serbo-Croatian Between Linguistics and Politics: With a Bibliography of the Post-Yugoslav Language Dispute]. Lincom Studies in Slavic Linguistics ; vol 34 (in German). Munich: Lincom Europa. pp. 147, 312–329. ISBN 978-3-929075-79-3. LCCN 2009473660. OCLC 428012015. OL 15295665W.
  2. ^ a b Kordić, Snježana (2010). Jezik i nacionalizam [Language and Nationalism] (PDF). Rotulus Universitas (in Serbo-Croatian). Zagreb: Durieux. pp. 116–119. ISBN 978-953-188-311-5. LCCN 2011520778. OCLC 729837512. OL 15270636W. Archived (PDF) from the original on 8 July 2012. Retrieved 5 March 2014.
  3. ^ "A fishy name will stay the same". CNN. September 6, 1996.

External links[edit]