Abby Kaplan begins her book by explaining its two purposes. First, the book is meant for “debunking language myths” such as those about linguistic sex differences and text messaging. Second, Kaplan’s book is about “how to study language”, or to reveal insights on what linguists do (p. 2). This has my interest piqued. There is no shortage of downright nonsense about language in the news, social media, and bookstores and so Kaplan’s book, which is suited to combat that nonsense, is therefore a welcome addition to the shelf.
Consider Kaplan’s thesis for the book:
This book is about two things […] First, it is about popular beliefs about language: the conventional wisdom on topics from linguistic sex differences to the effects of text messaging. Sometimes, of course, popular opinion has things more or less right – but it’s more interesting to examine cases where “what everyone knows” is wrong, and so we will put a special focus on debunking language myths. […] Second, this book is about how to study language – not in the sense that it will train you to do linguistic analysis for yourself, but in the sense that it provides a glimpse of the kinds of things linguists do. (p. 2)
Kaplan’s thesis on “popular beliefs about language” vs. “how to study language” aims to strike a balance between what people think they know about language and how we (or linguists) can figure out what is really going on. Such a thesis may sound heavier than usual for a book aimed at the general public, but Kaplan’s writing makes this book very approachable. In fact, Kaplan’s goal of the book has me hoping that journalists will read it: “The goal is for you to you to become an informed consumer of social science research with an appreciation of how the scientific process works” (p. 2).
Kaplan picks up this theme of the gibberish that is published about language by claiming “The world is full of self-appointed experts who feel free to make pronouncements on language with little or no supporting evidence” (p. 3). She is certainly correct there. One of the problems that I don’t often see reported is that linguistics is a tricky subject. Everyone speaks a language and many people feel justified in making claims about language. This doesn’t happen with other scientific subjects. No one makes claims about mathematics because they took algebra in high school. But some people who had a strict English teacher, or who got straight A’s in English class, feel it is their right to pass judgement on what is the appropriate use of language and what it not. One of the first assignments that I give my first-year students is to have them write about their linguistic pet peeves because I want them to let go of those notions before they start to learn that studying the modern use of language is not like paleontologists studying a T-rex from its skeleton, but rather like studying a living T-rex up close and without tranquilizer darts. That said, there are people who feel comfortable having learned the “rules” of their language and who do not want to be told different. I’d like to think that there are more people who learned the “rules” but are willing to keep learning more, even though they did not pursue a degree in linguistics. Kaplan’s book is for them.
I thoroughly enjoyed every chapter in this book, but I want to highlight a few that I thought were especially good.
Chapter 1 – “A dialect is a collection of mistakes”
Perhaps it’s good to start with a discussion of dialects (a topic that everyone seems to have an opinion on) and the Ebonics debate, an occurrence which received an incredible amount of input from non-linguists or language professionals, a.k.a. people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Kaplan quotes some people who say that African American English (AAE), also called Black English, is a way of speaking in which you “you can say pretty much what you please, as long as you’re careful to throw in a lot of ‘bes’ and leave off final consonants” (p. 11). In my opinion, Kaplan is too easy on the writers who spout this nonsense (which is akin to the nonsense on the Urban Dictionary, a source that Kaplan also quotes), but the rest of the chapter is a detailed analysis of why non-standard dialects follow specific rules, just like Standard English does.
Kaplan offers a very good insight in this chapter. She writes:
There is one final point to be made here. Linguists argue that no variety of a language is linguistically superior to any other; every dialect of every language follows regular grammatical rules and is capable of fulfilling the communicative needs of its speakers. This is true even for languages and dialects that are widely thought to be crude or unsophisticated: as soon as linguists start studying what speakers actually do, we discover that these languages are just as rule-governed as any other.
But linguists also recognize that not all dialects of a given language are socially equal. Standard English is no better or worse than AAE in many social situations. Whether we like it or not, it’s a fact of life that a person who speaks Standard English will find it much easier to excel in the academic world or get certain kinds of jobs than a person who speaks only AAE. Thus, there are good pragmatic and ethical arguments for helping speakers of non-standard dialects learn Standard English too, while acknowledging that it’s only by historical accident that this particular variety is the prestigious one. (p. 20)
This is a point that you will not find in most books or articles about language that are written by non-language scholars. There is an idea (a very old idea) that the standard variety of the language is The One True Way™. Kaplan does a good job explaining that this idea, like the idea that a dialect is a collection of mistakes, is misleading. She also notes that it is “a simplification to talk about a single ‘Standard English’” (p. 11), since there are different standards in different English-speaking countries. There are also different standards among different genres of writing and speaking.
Chapter 5 – “Children have to be taught language”
Every chapter of Kaplan’s book starts with a myth about language in the title. Kaplan explains what is behind the myth and gives background information from language studies. She then offers summaries of case studies which have been done to investigate the myth. This chapter on child language acquisition is about how children who receive the most language input, i.e. those who are taught language, are likely to do better in life and it references the celebrated research done by Hart and Risley (1995), which supposedly found that children from low-income families have lower IQ scores because “low-income parents talk to their children much less, and in different ways, than high-income parents do” (p. 83). But Kaplan also highlights an important distinction in studies of this kind:
Look again at the list of things that parents can apparently do to boost their children’s language development: talk a lot, directly to the child; use a large vocabulary; treat the child as a conversational partner and engage with her intensively; ask her lots of questions; use indirect requests instead of giving demands; and so on. This picture looks suspiciously like the western mainstream middle-class model of parenting – which […] is far from universal. Not only that, but this is exactly the social group to which researchers on child language acquisition are most likely to belong. (p. 89)
Kaplan shows that measuring a child’s linguistic ability based solely on how many words they say while a researcher around is perhaps wrong-headed. Different cultures and social groups place different restrictions on how much children are allowed to talk around adults/strangers/researchers. Likewise, researchers from different socio-economic and cultural groups may place value on objects and experiences that are unfamiliar to children from different groups. The study of language is not as straightforward as it seems. Kaplan again shows a good insight when she writes about our biases and problems in language studies:
The point here is not that Hart and Risley had it backwards, that the parenting practices they thought were good are actually bad. Rather, the point is that any time we try to study parents and children – including their use of language – our research is inevitably influenced by culture-specific assumptions about the kinds of things parents and children ought to do. It’s all too easy to study parents and children in our own culture and conclude that we’ve learned something about parents and children everywhere. (p. 92)
I was a bit disappointed that a discussion of Motherese was left out of this chapter. Motherese is the idea that the primary caregiver(s) explicitly correct their child’s language mistakes, thus giving instructions on what is acceptable in their language. Motherese was perhaps most famously put forth by Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct. Pinker argued that Motherese is “folklore” and that its non-existence proves that humans have Universal Grammar (Motherese is wrapped up in the Poverty of the Stimulus argument). Kaplan claims that we can answer the question of whether Motherese exists, or whether “parents systematically and explicitly correct their children’s grammar mistakes” with “a resounding ‘no’” (p. 104). She says no study has ever found this, but Sampson (2005) references a study which showed that the speech directed at children by caregivers is more “proper” (i.e. free of grammatical errors) than linguists assume, especially Pinker and other believers in Universal Grammar. I concede that taking on Universal Grammar is a lot to ask out of one chapter of one book, but I would have liked to see this debate at least mentioned. Kaplan does address the poverty of the stimulus argument and makes a very pertinent point about how it’s a theory on child language acquisition which was put forth by someone (Chomsky), who is not an expert in child language acquisition. She writes:
The poverty of the stimulus remains a controversial hypothesis, and some linguists have argued that Chomsky (who is not a specialist in child language acquisition) underestimated how much information is in the speech that a young child typically hears. (p. 93, bolding mine)
The shade, it is thrown.
In discussing the speech that children overhear, Kaplan has a very nice side-note which I think anyone who has been around children can appreciate. It shows that this book is also fun: “It seems entirely reasonable that children would pay more attention when they are being spoken to directly, but it’s also clear that children ‘eavesdrop’ as well. (If you doubt this, try swearing within earshot of a two-year-old.)” (p. 91).
Chapter 6 – “Adults can’t learn a new language”
Kaplan’s chapter here does a very good job of discussing the myth that there is a critical period in language learning, or an unspecified age sometime before adulthood after which it is impossible for people to become fluent in a second language. Kaplan frames this question very well, or shows how linguists should frame the myth, by writing:
But our anecdotal impressions may not be accurate; it’s true that many adults struggle with a second language, but it’s also true that many adults become competent and fluent speakers of a language they first learned late in life. In addition, even if children really are better on average at learning a second language than adults are, that fact by itself doesn’t prove that there is a critical period for second-language acquisition: children and adults are different in many ways, and it could be that adults have trouble with new languages for some reason other than just their age. (p. 115)
This explanation is an example of the insightful ways that Kaplan approaches the linguistic myths in the book. And this explanation is especially pertinent here since the critical period myth comes directly from linguists. It is unfortunate, however, that in this chapter Kaplan does not define what “native proficiency” means and does not tell us how the studies mentioned define the term. To reach the proficiency of a native speaker was once ultimate goal for second-language learners, but that idea has fallen under question since “native” speakers do not always serve as exemplars of their language and since speaking like a native is not desirable in all situations. For example, when two or more non-native English speakers with different first languages are working together, an international variety of English might be preferable.
Chapter 8 – “Women talk more than men”
It is easy to see why Chapter 8 gives the book its title. This chapter, on the myth that women talk more than men, is probably the most insightful chapter in the book, perhaps because the myth is so misleading. For example, Kaplan shows how even if we were to observe that women talked more than men, this would leave us with a host of additional questions and few answers:
Suppose you conducted an experiment and found that women were more likely to say um more than men. Does this mean that women are more insecure than men? Or that they’re more thoughtful and take more time deciding what to say next? How much do the results depend on the design of the experiment? For example, was the data collected in a lab setting, or from a corpus of spontaneous conversation? If it was in a lab setting, could that task have biased the results? Were the subjects discussing a topic that men might traditionally be expected to know more about? Were the subjects giving monologues, conversing in pairs, or talking in small groups? Were they talking with others of the same sex or the opposite sex?
As we will see, factors like these have a huge effect on how men and women speak. (p. 155)
Kaplan explains various ideas from different cultures about how men and women speak. And she astutely points out the what is really behind these ideas:
By this point, contemporary western ideas about women’s superior verbal skills are starting to look anomalous. Obviously societies vary in what they believe about women’s speech: according to the medieval song discussed above, women are gossipy and unable to keep secrets; according to Jespersen, women are languid and insipid; according to rural Malagasy communities, women are unskilled and blunt. What all of these beliefs have in common is not the specific characteristics that are attributed to women, but the idea that women are inferior to men. Where assertiveness and directness are highly valued, those behaviors are considered to be characteristic of men; where indirectness and self-effacement are highly valued, those behaviors are attributed to men. (p. 162)
I like that Kaplan discusses the ways that women’s speech is viewed in other places in the world, but I appreciate it even more that this book – which is written in English and is from contemporary western society – shows that the ideas in our own culture about how women speak are deficient. I have a sneaking suspicion that the talk of places and languages in far off lands would fall on deaf ears for general readers, so it is very good that Kaplan contextualizes our own views of language.
Chapter 9 – Texting makes you illiterate
This is a myth that linguists have been at pains to debunk in recent years because texting and microblogging have become so popular. Along with the rise of these technologies and platforms has, unfortunately, also come the Chicken Little language commentary, which screams that texting is ruining the English language. The most infamous propagator of such hysteria is perhaps Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a book which starts of bemoaning the harm caused to English by texting and then goes on moaning for over 100 pages. So it was nice to see that this is one of the best chapters in Kaplan’s book. Kaplan begins by explaining that texting is a form of language unto itself and that there are valid reasons for why it will most likely not influence other forms of language:
When we use some technology to transmit language, its form isn’t neutral: it shapes how we say things, and therefore also potentially what we say. It matters, for example, that writing (but not speech) is permanent, that it can be revised and edited, and that it carries only limited information about tone of voice. Telephone and radio transmit audio but not video; the listener has access to the voice but not the nonverbal cues. Telegrams used to be priced by the word, which encouraged senders to use as few words as possible in what became the classic ‘telegraphic’ style. (p. 190)
Many language commenters often do not realize these facts and think that the way people tweet is the way that they will write letters to the editor, or job applications, or whatever. But there is little reason to assume this is the case (and the language commenters rarely present evidence to support such an assumption). In addition, Kaplan makes another important point that is overlooked by people who adhere to this myth: the abbreviations used in texting (and tweeting, chatting, etc.) serve a meaningful sociolinguistic function besides saving space or time. The proof of this is that some of the abbreviations actually take more time and space to compose then writing the words out, and yet people still use them.
Later in the chapter, Kaplan gets to what’s at the heart of this chapter’s myth: people don’t like texting because it’s not proper English. She writes:
Despite the similarity between some types of hieroglyphic writing and some types of text message abbreviations, I have yet to hear a modern commentator decry hieroglyphics with the same fervor that is applied to texting. It’s hard to avoid the impression that these abbreviations are condemned, not because they’re inherently bad, but because they simply do not happen to be part of standard written English. (p. 198)
Well, sure, but Ancient Egypt used hieroglyphics and look what happened to them.
This is one of the best books on language and linguistics that I have ever read. It is wide-ranging and well-written. It offers more in terms of actual data than the usual language books aimed at the general public, but it is not so technical as to be inaccessible to non-linguists. It’s like a peek behind the curtain of linguistics and shows the sticky nature of seemingly simple (but wrong) ideas such as “a dialect is a collection of mistakes”, “the most beautiful language is X” and especially “women talk more than men”. For each myth, Kaplan has built a response based on solid linguistic sources. In each chapter, she also offers a bullet point summary, and list of points for further reflection on the topic, a concise and explanatory list of references for further reading, and a bibliography. If any of the topics covered in this book leave you hoping for more, you will not be let down. I highly recommend reading this book.
You can see other reviews of this book on Stan Carey’s blog Sentence First and Lauren Gawne’s blog Superlinguo. Both of them enjoyed the book. You can also read a blog post by Kaplan on the myths and facts of “uptalk” in English.
Women Talk More than Men …And Other Myths about Language Explained is available in paperback (ISBN: 9781107446908) for $24.99 (UK£15.99) and in hardcover (ISBN: 9781107084926) for $94.99 (UK£59.99). CUP kindly sent me a copy of Kaplan’s book for this review.