Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why "Cranky Linguist?"

Teaching anthropology and linguistics probably makes a person more susceptible to crankiness than does teaching most other subjects. Anthropologists and linguists develop analytic (scientific) models or theories about humans: their nature, evolution, culture, language, and so on. These models frequently contradict the folk models that our students have acquired during their enculturation, and which they bring with them to the university.

Folk models can be very resistant to change, because they feel "natural" to the people who hold them. When you challenge them, you challenge the natural order people have constructed for themselves. And every generation of students brings these folk models to school with them.

A few linguistic and anthropological things that make me cranky every semester:
  • "Languages" are better than "dialects"
  • a "double negative" really means a "positive"
  • words like the and a are "adjectives"
  • believing that ancestors can talk to you in dreams is "superstition," but believing that a wafer turns into the body of a man who may or may not have lived 2,000 years ago is "religion"
Now, some folk beliefs are pretty harmless. The idea that the table in front of the classroom is "solid" can be refuted by physics, but not only does it not hurt anyone, it actually helps us get through our day: I feel confident setting my water bottle on it. But some folk beliefs, like the idea prevalent in US culture that newborn infants should sleep apart from their mothers, have consequences that are not always good.

In some of the following posts, I'll deal more in depth with these and other sources of my crankiness.


  1. You'd dislike aspects of South African English where we regularly use a double negative. This is an effect of Afrikaans on the language. We also have a strong tendency to say "no" when we mean "yes".

  2. on the contrary, i think he would LIKE aspects of south african english where double negatives are used. i think the point is that there is, in fact, nothing inherently wrong with double negatives.

    I'd be interested to hear more about south africa's use of "no" as "yes".


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