Language Myths

These language myths all have an underlying theme: "Other people's languages - especially those most different from ours - are inferior to ours." Our language, the primary way we express ourselves, is one place our insecurities come to a focus, so we feel compelled to minimise the value of other ways of communicating. (This almost automatically gives native bilinguals an edge on the rest of us. They can think in two planes. Learning another language - preferably unrelated to our first - is our best hope of rising above the limitations of our culture.)

Below I deal with myths about Pidgin, Sign Languages and Maori.

Pidgin

Myth: "'Bikfala bokis hemi garem plande tit, iu faetem, hemi krae (A big box with many teeth; when you hit it, it cries)' means a piano." (That's what it would be in Solomons Pijin)

I have searched far and wide and been unable to find any instance of a speaker of a pidgin ever using an expression like this - nor the corresponding expressions for violin, saw or helicopter.

Fact: Life's too short, even in the tropics. The helicopter one ("miksmasta blong Jisas") is further confounded by the fact that helicopters are familiar, mixmasters rare. As someone said, they'd be more likely to call a mixmaster, "helikopta blong Misas." It may be that someone somewhere once defined a piano using such a picturesque extended expression, but we do the same (we used to call computers "electronic brains", and I call ATMs "Altars To Mammon") and thereafter they'd call it "piana".

Fact: Tok Pisin (Neo-Melanesian) does use 'as' (from English 'arse') to mean 'basis, foundation' and 'gras' to mean both 'grass' and 'hair'.

Myth: "Pidgin languages are rudimentary and inferior."

This was most recently repeated by Bill Bryson, no less, in his book about English - anyone can write a book about language, it seems, just using one is sufficient qualification.

Fact: Like any other real language, pidgins can be used to say anything people want to say. It may take more words in an unfamilar field, and Pidgins, by their nature, use more words rather than inflections, but they are capable of just as much subtlety as any other languages.

Myth: "Pidgin English was invented by speakers of English"

Fact: the three Melanesian Pidgins were invented by Melanesians to talk to each other after colonial "blackbirders" took them from their home islands to Queensland and Fiji and mixed them.

Myth: "Anyone make can pidgin up as they go along."

Fact: Pidgins are natural languages that arise over time wherever people have no language in common. They have internal rules and structure like every other natural language.

On to my translation of Oedipus Rex into Pijin

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Sign Languages

Myth: "Sign Languages are universal"

Fortunately the name American Sign Language implicitly contradicts that, but many USAmericans imagine that all Deaf people use ASL, and even Deaf USAmericans sometimes use "ASL" to refer to sign languages in general. (ASL has by far the biggest population of speakers.)

Fact: ASL is primarily descended from French Sign Language. British Sign Language is quite different. New Zealand Sign Language, Australian Sign Language, and South African Sign Language are daughter languages of BSL. (A distinctive difference from ASL is the two-handed fingerspelling system. Both have advantages: you can fingerspell in ASL while holding a cup of coffee in the other hand, but you can teach and learn the two-handed system much more quickly because so many more of its consonents are iconic, and the vowels are systematic.) There are also distinct Chinese, Japanese, Swedish and many other SLs: their distribution may or may not correspond with the linguistic divisions of the countries they are in: Belgium has one, Ireland has two, Catholic and Protestant (presumably based on French and British).

Myth: "Deaf people should all use the same Sign Language."

Yes, and it would be better if hearing people all spoke the same language.

Fact: Actually of course, since you can't sign on the phone (or on the 'Net just yet), Deaf people have less use for an international language than hearing people. (There is an artificial international sign language, Gestuno, which is about as popular among Deaf people as Esperanto among the hearing.)

Myth: "Sign Languages were invented by hearing people."

Fact: Like all natural languages, (including pidgins) they were invented by the people who use them. The implication is that Deaf people are incapable of inventing a language for themselves, that deafness affects not only the hearing but the imagination and intelligence.

Actually, when hearing people tamper with sign languages, the result is a mess. Witness "Australasian Sign Language" (actually Australasian Signed English) an artificial hybrid, cobbled together by committees of hearing teachers of Deaf children with a view to teaching them (spoken and written) English. Deaf people hate it, since it lacks any of the grace and flexibility of a natural sign language. The logical language to teach any language - apart from total immersion - is whatever language the learners already use.

Myth "Sign languages begin and end with fingerspelling."

Fact: There are places where isolated Deaf people use (very fast) fingerspelling alone, but they are rare. The urge to create language is too strong.

Myth: "Sign languages can only refer to concrete things, not abstrations."

Fact:: SLs have signs for all the abstractions found in spoken languages, and some of their own. Because they are visual, SLs sometimes have an advantage in dealing with the visual world (to tell a story, one may "build" a scene in "sign-space"), but this does not limit them in any way in dealing with the invisible, any more than audible speech limits hearing people's ability to discuss the silent or the inaudible.

On to my essays on NZSL. or to an early (monks') SL

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iconic: resembling what it means. (The ASL sign for "L" is one of the few of its fingerspellings that is iconic, i.e. L-shaped.)

 

Maori

Myth: "Nobody speaks Maori any more"

We don't hear this as much as we used to, before there were daily Maori news bulletins on radio and TV, and 22 Maori radio stations. (This myth is related to the one that says there are no "full-blooded" Maori any more. There are some tens of thousands, but so what? "A few drops" of Pakeha "blood" no more turns a Maori into a Pakeha than the reverse.)

Fact: The Maori language is in a parlous state, and whether it will recover is in doubt, but there are still some tens of thousands of fluent speakers.

Myth: "There are many mutually unintelligible dialects of Maori."

This was seriously used by the Porirua Returning Officer in the 1998 local body election as a reason not to offer even a bilingual voting paper.

Fact: There is one Maori language spoken the length and breadth of New Zealand. Nobody can consider themself fluent who can not understand and be understood anywhere in the country. The differences are fewer than those between American and British English: Some systematic changes to one consonant in each variety (wh to w' and h to ' in Wanganui/Taranaki, ng to n in Tuhoe, ng to k [g] in Kai Tahu), a small number of vocabulary items, and regional accents and intonations - and that's it.

Myth: "Maori consists mainly of transliterated English words"

Fact: Like any other language, Maori has adopted and adapted words from other languages for new concepts, but they amount to only a small fraction of the total vocabulary. Te Taura Whiri o te Reo / The Maori Language Commission is working to replace these words with more poetic and authentic coinages. (I have reservations about the wisdom of coining new names based on European paganism for the days, or mismatched relabelling of the 12 European months with some of the names of the 13 lunar Maori months. These make Maori harder to learn, when one aim of linguistic engineering should be to make it easier.)

On to my oral dictionary of Maori placenames

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