Language myths are ideas which are widely believed to be true about certain languages or about the works of language in general, but which are actually not, in the view of most linguists. One example is the common belief that certain languages are more “primitive” than others. Or that translation is no more than a word-matching process. Such myths may be the result of folk etymology (a popular, yet mistaken account of the origin of a word or phrase), of misconceptions spreading because they are more interesting, entertaining or convenient than the real explanation, of oversimplification or of the prevalence of stereotypes. If you believe that S.O.S. stands for save our souls, that Eskimos have scores of words for snow, that crossing one’s arms necessarily means resistance, that it was Marie Antoinette who said “Let them eat cake”, or that some languages are spoken faster than others, you may need to reconsider your views. Below we attempt to refute these widespread linguistic myths, and uncover the less known reality behind them.
The origins of S.O.S.
If you think that the standard distress signal S.O.S. stands for save our souls, save our ship, or send out succor, think again. In fact, this is a meaningless series of letters, chosen because in emergency situations it is easy to transmit in Morse code. In this alphabet, which represents letters by combinations of long and short light or sound signals, S.O.S. is rendered as . . . _ _ _ . . . (dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot). First adopted by the Germans in 1905, it became international three years later, especially in maritime use. Over time, S.O.S. entered public awareness as an urgent appeal for help, and was used outside radio code signals, in all types of unrelated situations, being, for instance, the title of several hit songs, a British novel, a Mexican TV series and many more.
Another international distress signal, Mayday, also has unapparent origins: it has nothing to do with the month of May, but is an anglicization of French m’aider, from venez m’aider (‘come and help me’). Used as a radio signal by ships and aircraft in particular, it was chosen in 1923 by a senior officer of London’s Croydon Airport, and was preferred to S.O.S. because the letter S was argued to be hard to distinguish by phone.
How many words for snow do Eskimos have?
A widespread false belief about language is that Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow. Often used to illustrate the influence of language on thought, the multitude of snow words has been related to a particular ability of Inuits to distinguish between many types of snow. The theory is that humans’ ability or inability to express something in words has an impact on their ability to think about it. For example, it has been demonstrated that memorizing or categorizing something is easier when we have a name for it. Someone whose language has a word for a particular shade will distinguish it faster among similar shades, although this does not mean that speakers of languages which do not name that hue are unable to differentiate it. Fierce debates continue on the language and thought interplay.
Back to Eskimos, they actually have a handful of snow words, with estimates ranging from two to a dozen, i.e. a number as unremarkable as in English, which accommodates snow, sleet, flurry, blizzard, slush, powder, flakes, hail, etc. This multiple-word myth is rooted in a misunderstanding of language structure, i.e. in a rather broad definition of word. Languages in the Yupik and Inuit-Inupiaq families, spoken by Eskimos, are agglutinative, having many compounded forms, with an actually small number of roots. For instance, in West Greenlandic, sikursuit (‘pack ice’), sikuliaq (‘new ice’), sikuaq (‘thin ice’), and sikurluk (‘melting ice’) all have the same root: siku (‘sea ice’). If we treat these complex forms as phrases like in English, the number of snow words is much reduced.
The meaning of crossed arms
Body language is also the source of many myths and stereotypes. By way of illustration, we instantly associate crossed arms with resistance, and judge people who assume this position as unapproachable or hostile. However, this is not the only possible meaning, it all depends on the situation, on external factors or on individual preferences. For instance, since there are no chairs in front of them, people sitting in the first row in an audience are expected to cross their arms in order to create a barricade, at least until they get used to the speaker and the context. This posture may equally be a question of physical accommodation: sitting in a chair that lacks armrests or simply being in a cold room is likely to make one cross arms. In contrast, somebody else may fold their arms across their chest when feeling comfortable, as in watching a movie on the couch. Also, a person who is deep in thought will walk up and down with crossed arms, which is a sign of concentration and resolution. On the other hand, one may cross one’s arms for no reason whatsoever, the gesture itself need not be interpreted in each and every case. Although body language plays a key role in communication, it is advisable to avoid stereotypes in its interpretation.
Who said “Let them eat cake”?
‘Let them eat cake’ we say when we jokingly decline responsibility for some group of people. The phrase is generally ascribed to French Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), who is said to have uttered Qu’ils mangent de la brioche when she was told that the common people had no bread. Brioche was a luxury bread complemented by butter and eggs, so the quote is argued to express the Queen’s disregard for peasants. Marie-Antoinette was increasingly unpopular in the final years before the French Revolution, due to her extravagance, perceived frivolousness and Austrian origins. Nicknamed Madame Déficit, she was believed to have had a significant contribution to the ruin of the Kingdom’s finances.
Nevertheless, there is no evidence that Marie Antoinette ever said anything of the sort. The phrase first appeared in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, being attributed to a nameless “great princess”, but Rousseau may have invented the entire story. Even if he did not, Marie Antoinette was only fourteen, and not yet in France, when the Confessions were completed. Furthermore, the quote was first associated with the Queen as late as 1843: the anecdote was never cited by antimonarchists during the Revolution, but became symbolic later, when pro-revolutionary historians tried to prove how selfish the French upper class was at the time. As for the actual origins of the phrase, researchers quote the memoirs of King Louis XVIII, who wrote that within the family it was attributed to Maria Theresa of Spain, the first wife of Louis XIV.
Fast and slow languages
When asked to name a language that is spoken slowly and another that is fast-speaking, each of us will have at least one pair in mind. But are some languages really spoken more quickly than others? Phonetician Peter Roach argues against this common belief, claiming that speech rate assessment tends to be subjective, especially when unfamiliar languages or accents are concerned. As some languages have longer words than others (just think of German vs. Chinese), measuring speaking rate in words per minute is irrelevant. Counting syllables per second is also problematic, as languages have different syllable structures. Those with a relatively simple syllabic structure, such as Japanese, can fit more syllables in one second than languages like English, the syllable structure of which is more complex, making the former sound faster. When sounds uttered in one second are counted, there are differences between speaking styles in the same language (e.g., from poetry reading to sports commentary), but “normal” speech across languages shows no statistically significant differences.
It seems that our impression of a language being spoken slower or faster is influenced by its characteristic rhythm. Syllable-timed languages, like Spanish or French, which tend to assign equal amounts of time to all syllables, are perceived as having a different rhythm than stress-timed languages such as English or Russian, which give more time to stressed syllables. Syllable-timed languages seem to sound faster than stress-timed languages to speakers of other stressed-timed languages. As many measurement studies failed to confirm the theory, the author concludes that some languages simply sound either stress-timed or syllable-timed, and that, correspondingly, languages just sound faster or slower, without actual material differences.