People Love Language. But Do They Know It?

I love hearing what non-linguists have to say about linguistic phenomena. It’s impossible to avoid biases when studying language; either you know too much to really comment in a fully objective manner or you’re somehow missing some information necessary to make a fully enlightened assessment. Okay, I admit. You will always harbor some ignorance somehow. But the point is, I think it’s valuable to take both positions into account when asking questions about how language is used & perceived. So while I see that the recent rash of “Shit Xs Say” videos on YouTube represent an imperfect “analysis” of the speech of groups defined by extra-linguistic variables (e.g., gender, race, etc.), I still think it’s great that this sort of thing is obviously interesting to people.

But the question I keep asking myself is this. Do people know that they’re interested in language?

I’m not really sure what’s going on — which is why I want to study it formally — but it seems like some people seem to exhibit an odd contradiction of behaviors that seem to reflect interest in (or at least awareness of) sociolinguistic phenomena paired with closed-minded, uninformed attitudes toward linguistic diversity. What’s the deal? How can people have both at once?

I think it just means that people are open to learning about language & would probably enjoy it but that just doesn’t happen in our education system — an unfortunate situation! And hopefully if they did learn more about linguistic principles, they would be more aware of their own fascination with language & eager to learn more about linguistic variation. Given that people are at present taught the rigid, prescriptive “rules” that supposedly govern language & subsequently defend them sometimes fervently, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing would happen were they to learn about natural language use instead. A linguist can dream!

Megan L. Risdal



Filed under Linguistics

2 responses to “People Love Language. But Do They Know It?

  1. At my university, English Education majors are required to take an Intro to Linguistics class and (I believe, though I might be misremembering) a History of English class. I think this is a step in the right direction to incorporating linguistics/natural language into pre-college education. When I was a kid, most “inconsistencies” in spelling and grammar were explained as just a quirk of the language rather than a piece of a complex evolution of language and culture. I think this approach just leads to frustration and an attitude that English is unreasonably difficult, rather than an appreciation of its complexity and beauty, and of course finding humor in its often confusing nature.

    • That’s really great & I do believe that to be a step in the right direction. I think that the university I graduated from also required all English majors to take a course on introductory linguistics, but I’m not sure — I wasn’t an English major. I worry that by simply glossing over unusual linguistic features in a language, you’re setting people up to target these “inconsistencies” as objectively bad things about language when in fact they just represent, for example, variation. I would be frustrated too if I were under the impression that grammar was all I could learn about language. Hopefully we keep heading in the right direction wrt language-learning in schools! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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