By counter-intuitive I mean, contrary to intuition of native speakers of some language, or contrary to some popular knowledge about languages (apart many cases of folk etymology)?

(e. g. "strange" language family; rain in Chinese it's not representation of rain but a wheat after rain; or yellow it's was violet in PIE; for perceive phonemes we also need to see the person who speak, not only hear the sound)

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    Here are a couple of handouts from talks on this topic that I gave at the Norwescon science fiction convention in Seattle (I like SF, but it only rarely gets the science of language correct; these are in the nature of remedial examples). One, "Fictional Linguistics" is on real phenomena in real human languages that are odder than anything in SF, and the other, "Linguistic Fossils", is on how languages change over time.
    – jlawler
    Nov 26, 2014 at 16:37
  • This question is on a really interesting and worthwhile topic but it doesn't really fit the Stack Exchange mould because it's so open ended. There can be no "one right answer". You might try asking it on Quora, which doesn't worry about such rules but attracts a lot more non-expert assumption-type answers in my experience. The closest we could do here would be an answer that links to something comprehensive. Nov 27, 2014 at 3:34

2 Answers 2


Almost everything a linguist will know about language will be counterintuitive to many native speakers. I've spent years teaching grammar to native speakers of English as well as intro to linguistics so I have come across a lot of things that completely dumbfound people.

Here are some areas to look into:

Phonetics and phonology

  • Schwa is the most common sound in English!
  • English has 18 vowels (vs. 5 vowel letters)
  • The very concept of a phoneme seems to stump people

Lexicon and Etymology

  • The extent to which words have changed
  • The enormous polysemy of many words
  • The arbitrariness of the sign vs. motivation

Syntax and semantics

  • How quickly language becomes intractable when treated algorithmically (something the whole field had to learn)
  • How idioms work


  • Speech acts are normal and not a misuse of language
  • Presupposition is part of meaning


  • There's no clear boundary between dialect and language
  • There's no such thing as a 'primitive language'
  • Standard English is just one dialect of English
  • Bilingualism is the norm not the exception
  • Children are not harmed by learning multiple languages at once
  • Code switching is normal

I've written a post about 5 things people should know about language and another one with 17 things linguists know about language. Most of those will come as a surprise to non-linguists (and even some linguists raised in certain traditions).

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    Nice list. I've found that monolingualism (a widespread but treatable condition here in Australia) really leads people to many wrong intuitions about language. Nov 27, 2014 at 0:23
  • old joke (which you doubtlessly know): A language is a dialect with an army. Mar 18, 2021 at 13:45
  • @GastonÜmlaut: old joke: Someone who speaks three languages is called trilingual. Someone who speaks two languages is called bilingual. Someone who speaks one language is called an American. Mar 18, 2021 at 13:47
  • @Gaston Umlaut: The easiest cure for monolingualism is virtually always to learn Esperanto. Mar 18, 2021 at 13:49

That it's possible to create a language (within a short time, in one's study), Esperanto being the best-known of these little-known phenomena.

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