Linguistics for Nonlinguists

"Linguistics? How interesting! How many languages do you speak?"

"How can you not know that? You're a linguist!"

It seems that nobody ever knows what Linguistics is and what it is that linguists do. Every linguist has had to face questions like the ones above. This section is my little attempt at showing people a bit more about this fascinating science. It's still very smal, but I'm working on it! Questions are always welcome.

Good sources:

LSA's Why Major in Linguistics

LSA's Fields of Linguistics

Mark Liberman's Language Log post Silly Linguistics
(what people think linguists do and some clever answers)


1. How many languages do you speak?

2. What's the correct way of saying X?

3. Where does this word come from?

4. Is it true that Eskimos have hundreds of words for "snow"?

Other questions? Ask them here!

1. How many languages do you speak?

Contrary to popular belief, linguists do NOT have to speak many languages. Being a linguist is not the same as being a poliglot. There are people who speak lots of languages and are not linguists, and linguists who do not speak more than 2 languages. Here's a useful analogy: a physicist knows a lot about movement, center of mass, trajectory of projectiles, air resistance, angular momentum, etc. This should make him a great sportsman, right? Well, we all know that this is not necessarily the case. Another one: a biologist knows a lot about cells, but he cannot build a cell from scratch. The bottomline is that knowing how to analyze something doesn't mean you know how to produce it. Back to linguists: we analyze language and we end up knowing bits and pieces about many languages, but this doesn't mean we can actually speak all these languages. Although some linguists are lousy language learners, they are great at noticing patterns and making generalizations that can support or go against this or that theory.

2. What's the right way of saying X?

If a physicist thinks that it's bad for a book to fall on the floor when he drops it, he can try to say that it's wrong for the book to fall and that it shouldn't happen. A zoologist might think that the behavior of a group of monkeys is immoral and say that they shouldn't behave like that because it's wrong. Surprise, surprise: the book is still going to fall, the monkeys are not going to change their behavior. You might even think that telling the book not to fall and telling the monkeys to behave differently is stupid. How is it then not stupid to expect a linguist to say what's right or wrong? As a scientist, the job of a linguist is mainly descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, a linguist will study how things really work, and not how some arbitrary book says things should work.

The question that usually follows is "then anything goes, we can speak and write anyway we want?". Well, well, well. Saying that a linguist is not interested in questions of prescriptivism does not mean that a linguist believes anything goes. That is an inappropriate generalization. First of all, there is the social role of language. if you go for a job interview wearing your ripped pajama pants, a dirty T-shirt, and flip-flops, chances are you are not going to get that job no matter how brilliant you are. Society will judge you by the way you look. Likewise, they will judge you by the way you talk and write. Therefore, knowing the rules of prescriptive grammar is a way of fitting the norms and can be a key element for social ascension. This doesn't mean that the way you talk at home or with your friends is wrong; it just might me inappropriate in certain contexts. Furthermore, there is the question of agreeing on one convention, especially for written language. If each person wrote any way they wanted, it would be a mess. It's like standardizing the currency in a country: everyone uses the same bills and coins. Once again, it doesn't mean that the way you talk in informal contexts is wrong. There are also questions about which variety or dialect of a language becomes the standard and why. But for now, this is enough.

3. Where does this word come from?

For a long time in history, up until the beginning of the 20th century (that's a rough approximation, don't quote me on that), what linguists did was mostly Philology, i.e. the study of the origins and history of words and languages. They studied, for example, how word X in Latin became word Y in French. Another example is doing comparative work among languages to come up with language genealogy. (You might have heard of Indo-European.) This way of studying language is called dyachronic, i.e., how language changes through time. Nowadays, most of Linguistics is synchronic, i.e., how language is at one particular point in time. This point in time is usually the present. Linguists want to understand what speakers know (consciously or not) when they use language.  As a native speaker of your language, do you know where all the words you use come from? Probably not even unconsciously. What synchronic linguistcs care about then is how things work at the point in time in question, regardless of how it got that way. Linguists might know about the origin of words out of their own curiosity, because in general they like words. However, they are not expected to know it.

4. Eskimos have X number of words for snow

This is what the linguist Geoffrey Pullum calls "the eskimo vocabulary hoax". There have been inumerous posts about that in the Language Log (here are the search results for "eskimo+words+snow"). Also, check Pullum's book The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays On the Study of Language. In short, the issue is the hypothesis that the way we see the world determines our language, so Eskimos have a huge number of words for snow because snow is such a prevalent aspect of their lives. First of all, this number of words for snow keeps growing everytime someone mentions it. Besides, what do we make of English snow, sleet, ice, flurry, black ice, hail, freezing rain, glacier, iceberg, etc. It's a considerable number of words related to the solid state of water. Does that mean that the English speaking society is greatly influenced by snow? What do you say then about the number of words and expressions to do with sexual organs and drugs? What does that say about the English-speaking community? (or any other actually) Languages have different, more specialized words for things, and that becomes more apparent the more specialized someone is in a certain field. That happens in all languages, and language A having more words than language B for something is just a fact of life.

Other questions? Ask them here!

Don't forget to give your opinion!