The role of (lay)linguistic myths in the reproduction of sociolinguistic norms

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By myths I mean beliefs about language(s) that are so firmly rooted and so frequently voiced that they can be considered part of our ‘cultural wisdom’ (Bauer & Trudgill 1998: xvi). Milroy (2001) has shown that not even trained linguists are free of such ‘myths’, although they are not necessarily the same ones as those propagated by lay people. According to Milroy, people in many western societies are influenced by a ‘standard language culture’. In societies with a ‘standard language culture’ the standard variety is often seen as the language per se and its characteristics of uniformity (or perceived uniformity) and determinacy (i.e. its boundaries are clearly delimited) are then postulated as ideal characteristics of all varieties. In this paper I will look at some ‘myths’ about language(s) that are linked to ‘standard language culture’ and consider how they contribute to the production of sociolinguistic norms. One ‘myth’ is the notion that variants can be clearly allocated to one variety or another and that varieties (at all levels, including languages) are clearly bounded systems. This is relevant, for example, for linguists who engage in the codification of standard varieties (e.g. Duden-Grammatik or Duden Bd 9: Richtiges und gutes Deutsch) or take part in language advisory activities (Sprachberatung). Another example is the use of labels like Fremdwort, even in works written by linguists, or the use of Strukturgemäßheit as a criterion for deciding on the status of a linguistic variant (e.g. is er braucht nicht gehen standard German or not?). The implication is that linguistic varieties have (or should have) clear boundaries. This leads to the belief, usually on the part of lay people, that the ‘mixing’ of varieties is a sign of incompetence or laziness or some other character weakness on the part of the speaker. I shall also examine critically the privileged status of the concept ‘vernacular’ in modern sociolinguistics, and consider to what extent it too has been influenced by the ‘standard language culture, implying as it does that the ideal variety is characterised by internal coherence and integrity. Terms like ‘mixing’ (Vermengung) and semi-lingualism (Halbsprachigkeit), which are common in discussions of multilingualism in Germany, all point to the strength of this way of conceptualising language and clearly have negative connotations which influence attitudes towards multilingual speakers. I shall finish by considering to what extent we can conceptualise variation differently (e.g. Grace (1981) refers to multilinguals drawing on a pool of linguistic resources) and how likely it is that the influence of 'standard language culture’ will persist or weaken in future.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 07 Nov 2009
EventWomen in German Studies (WIGS) 21st Annual Meeting - University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Duration: 07 Nov 200907 Nov 2009


OtherWomen in German Studies (WIGS) 21st Annual Meeting
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Period07 Nov 200907 Nov 2009
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