I'm already a year into a PhD program in linguistics, and I still haven't come up with a decent 'elevator pitch' to explain what linguistics is, and why bother studying it. The inaugural post on Language Jones is a perfect opportunity to remedy this sad state.
I've spent the last few years responding to questions by telling people what linguistics isn't:
- Linguistics is not translation studies. Translation is a field unto itself -- and one that, as a polyglot, I was very tempted to pursue before finding my real calling. Perhaps it's because organizations like the US military and the UN sometimes call their translators "linguists," or perhaps it's because people know linguists do something with language and are guessing the rest, but a surprising number of people immediately ask "oh, which language?" upon hearing I'm a linguist. Most are not happy with the response "all of them!"
- Linguistics is not polyglot training. A colleague once quipped that there are two kinds of linguists: the language people, and the computational people. The former geek out about languages in the world, the latter are passionate about figuring out what is going on in the mind, or figuring out the structure or models of the structure of Language (capital L). In fact, many linguists, to the average lay-person's confusion and chagrin, are monolingual.
- Linguistics is not grade school grammar pedantry. I will not correct your spelling. I do not care about your comma placement. If you ask me a question about proper usage, I'm liable to give you a brief history of etymology and changing spelling convention, before describing two or three competing standards. That is, unless I don't know that history -- in which case, I will drop everything and get to googling ("It turns out, that rule was made up by 'grammarians' in the 1700s, just to imitate Latin!").
The negation out of the way, just what is linguistics? Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Let's unpack that:
it is scientific study, meaning it is descriptive, not prescriptive. No linguist worth their salt will ever tell you a language should be some way. Rather, they will describe what languages and their speakers do. Double negatives? "Why yes, they're used in x, y, and z dialects of English, as well as all of these other languages -- however they are negatively socially evaluated by speakers of these dialects, in these social classes, in these settings." Split infinitives? "They're impossible in Latin, but a distinguishing feature of English."
It is the study of language. This means it is the study of the human faculty of language. This is a remarkably broad field, and as such, linguistics encompasses a number of subfields:
- Phonology - the study of the systematic organization of sounds in a language
- Syntax - the structure of language
- Phonetics - the study of the sound of speech: articulatory, acoustic, and auditory production and perception.
- Morphology - simply put, the structure of the building blocks of words
- Historical Linguistics - the study of language change, topics in history (e.g., how the Romance languages developed out of Latin), and the reconstruction of languages that are no longer living.
- Sociolinguistics - the study of the interaction between society and language.
- Semantics - how languages mean things.
- Pragmatics - how people use language in interaction
- &c. &c.
Any given linguist will have their subfields of interest and their particular specialties. A syntactician might be able to discuss the structural differences among a hundred languages but speak only English, whereas a historical linguist focusing on Indo-European languages will almost indubitably know Latin, (a dialect of ) Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and two other 'dead' languages.
My primary areas of interest are sociolinguistics, language variation and change, phonology, and pragmatics. I am currently interested in topics in dialects of English like African American Vernacular English, as well as in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, French, and others. One of the key problems I keep coming back to is language change and how changes are socially evaluated.
Ultimately, linguistics is a very large umbrella. At its heart, it is the scientific method applied to the study of all aspects of human language in all its varieties.
©Taylor Jones 2014
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