Five Linguistic Fallacies Worth Discussing by American High Schoolers and Their Parents

Oct 27, 2011 by

Robert Oliphant is an overseas veteran of WWII and earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962)

By Robert Oliphant

My name is Bob and I’ve been worrying about how physical some of our political disagreements have been getting lately, enough so that by way of a neutral corner I’m proposing an American English topic that focuses upon five current linguistic fallacies.  Here’s hoping even young Americans will take them seriously — especially those who worry about their public speaking confidence.

The Indo-European Fallacy. . . . This fallacy got started in WWII as a scuttling of the offensive label “Indo-Germanic,” accurate though it was, e.g., our library-status Walde-Pokorny Indogermanisches etymologisches Worterbuch.  The fallacy lies in the European part — Europe is a place, not a language, and many of its residents speak and cherish languages outside the Indic group:  Basque, Hungarian, etc.  Why not “Indic” and have done with it?

The Equality Fallacy. . . . Some years back the great anthropologist Franz Boas struck back against linguistic racism by insisting that there are no “primitive” languages on the earth today, as indicated by the fact that all known grammatical and phonetic systems are roughly the same size.  Unfortunately Boas omitted vocabulary size from his observation, thereby ignoring the dizzying number of words in high tech nations and their dictionaries, e.g., USA, German, China, etc.  With over 600,000 entries in 1932 Webster’s Unabridged, we’re at the top of the class!

The Garden-of-Eden Fallacy. . . . Going back to Freud, many European and American linguists have assumed that our species started out linguistically as a single patriarchal family (mom, dad, and the kids) in southern Africa..  Since then, despite valiant attempts by Joseph Greenberg and others, the evidence for language monogenesis is still iffy.  This topic is Ideal for a friendly discussion, especially for those followers of Desmond Morris who are not shocked by the notion that homo loquens may have started as an aquatic Ape, not an arboreal one.

The Henry Higgins Fallacy. . . . Shaw’s hero in Pygmalion/ My Fair Lady was based upon his eccentric friend Henry Sweet (renamed Higgins), a major force in the International Phonetic Alphabet movement and its many special symbols.  Unfortunately, a number of Henry’s outdated dots and squiggles, though they still populate our dictionaries, don’t work on the internet — especially those minuscule boldface dots.  With many keyboard-friendly phonetic alphabets now in use, why not pick a favorite and speak up for its good points?

The Tribal-Heritage Fallacy. . . . Human beings have always been more comfortable with families, clans, and tribes than with giant nations.  But it’s giant ships of state that sink or stay afloat these days, not isolated neighborhoods.  In the USA this means mastery of “spoken professional American dictionary English” (SPADE) by our citizens. It also means competing against the millions of offshore students who acquire SPADE-fluency as the language of world trade and tele-marketing, including the 690,923 foreign Ameriphones now attending American universities.

Unfortunately, our conflicting heritage languages and dialects (Mercado vs. Marqueta) are now pushing us toward linguistic conflict and separatism, enough so that we might in time collapse into a mishmash of separate languages and nations — just like the Roman Empire or where the Balkans are today.  Tribal heritage or SPADE?  — the question is worth raising even at the family dinner table, isn’t it?

TO CONCLUDE. . . . This short rattling of the cage is meant primarily as an opportunity to respond, not as a diatribe.  Even if the response is just a discussion with colleagues or students, I feel that’s a productive start and a wholesome one. . . . In this connection I feel it’s appropriate to cite Miguel Unamuno, who noted years ago that the basic vice of the English-speaking nations was HYPOCRISY — as opposed to GREED for the French and ENVY for the Spanish.  Hence our need to constantly keep tabs on whether our language is working for us or against us — as George Orwell’s voice still reminds us.

Argumentative though these five linguistic topics may be, I feel they represent public property, not the secret concerns of private experts.  Here’s hoping Americans will take their language more seriously, especially its standardized spoken version, which is now conquering the planet — and may even conquer Americans themselves if they don’t start taking their vowels and consonants more seriously.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR. . . . Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962).  His best known book is the anti-Alzheimer’s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980), the film version of which won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis. A U.S. Army veteran (air corps) and a CSUN emeritus professor, he now writes a column for

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