Army fires another gay "linguist"

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In spite of President Obama's stated opposition to the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, the Army has fired another gay "linguist", Lieutenant Dan Choi, an openly gay infantry patrol leader fluent in Arabic. No doubt the resulting surge in morale in his unit will overcome the loss of its ability to communicate with the local population. :)

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  1. Karen said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    Why the scare quotes? That's what the military calls them, and has for a very long time. I was one.

  2. Oskar said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 3:45 pm

    Yes, I agree with Karen. Why the quotes? To use the word "linguist" in the sense of "person who speaks many languages" is slightly outdated, but it is a perfectly valid use of the word. Words can have different meanings, you know.

  3. James C. said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    It’s an important distinction on a forum which is populated with linguists in the analytical, research-oriented sense. To us, the default meaning of the term “linguist” at least implies someone who knows the essentials of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. That’s not necessarily true for the military’s linguists, who are often untrained in the above fields and who might more properly be called translators or interpreters.

    When I hear “linguist”, I wonder “what school?” or “what subfield?”. The question “what language?” doesn’t cross my mind. (Although to be honest, “what family/sprachbund?” often does.)

  4. a.s. said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 3:57 pm

    Some outspoken academic linguists feel that the two senses of "linguist" exist in an unequal relationship, the armed forces' sense borrowing prestige from the academic sense. As a supporter of this view, I feel that the two usages blur a necessary boundary, since linguists¹ and linguists² work with languages in very different ways and have very different qualifications. This would be akin to demanding the right for nurses to call themselves doctors. After all, both work with sick patients.

    Coming back to the issue of Choi's dismissal, its impact is lessened by the fact that it was motivated by an obvious publicity gesture. If the army is unprepared to consider the issue of DADT, double-daring it on national TV will not be entirely productive.

  5. seriously said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 5:03 pm

    "To use the word "linguist" in the sense of "person who speaks many languages" is slightly outdated, but it is a perfectly valid use of the word. Words can have different meanings, you know."

    "It’s an important distinction on a forum which is populated with linguists in the analytical, research-oriented sense. To us, the default meaning of the term “linguist” at least implies someone who knows the essentials of phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. That’s not necessarily true for the military’s linguists, who are often untrained in the above fields and who might more properly be called translators or interpreters."

    When someone insists that, say, "enormity" should be reserved for describing outrageous or heinous acts, and "immensity" used instead when great size is the only issue, he is ridiculed as an out of touch prescriptivist and, if immoderate in his insistence, denounced for his "word rage."

    When someone insists that "linguist" should be reserved for describing an academic familiar with phonetics, syntax, etc., and that "interpreter" used instead when translating is the only issue, he is embraced as a professional colleague.

    Hey, I'm on the descriptivist team (and I'm only an interested amateur), but my irony detector is sounding in the background.

  6. Barbara Partee said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

    I saw that article this morning and in the context of the Army had no trouble predicting which sense of "linguist" they had in mind. I think our non-academic-linguist readers and Army linguists like Karen are right, and we really shouldn't use scare-quotes on the polyglot/interpreter sense of "linguist", but just recognize it as another established sense of the word. Sure, I've done it myself, but I agree that it's parochial and/or inappropriately prescriptivist, and I hereby promise to try not to do it again.

  7. Bobbie said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    This bickering about wording is similar to calling the person who compiles articles for a newsletter the "editor" when, in fact, he or she is merely a "complier" or a "compositor" who does not have any of the independent opinions of a true editor and may not even correct the spelling and grammar of the contributors….

  8. Bobbie said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    sorry, compiler

  9. marie-lucie said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

    In my opinion, the question of the ambiguity between the two meanings of "linguist" is not trivial, in that both meanings can be used for professional designations. It is not as if the two meanings are used in completely different contexts, so that they would be unlikely to be confused, but there is only a single, polysemous word and the meanings and contexts of its use overlap to a certain extent, making the word truly ambiguous. If a company tells it human resources department "we need to hire a linguist", they had better make sure which meaning of "linguist" they have in mind.

    Right now linguistics seem to be getting more visibility than earlier (eg the recent attention paid to S&W in the press), so that the academic meaning of "linguist" is perhaps becoming better known, but then the specialty of the "Army linguists" might get misinterpreted in turn. Is it enough to add adjectives to differentiate the two meanings, say to differentiate "practical linguist" from "academic linguist" or perhaps from "technical" lor "scientific linguist"? For the first, "interpreter" is too narrow as it usually refers to oral translation, while a "translator" is more likely to deal with written documents (of course, many people are both). But I wouldn't want to use a word that would seem to downplay the difficulties of "practical" language work, and the intellectual and other demands that it makes: the two "linguist" professions are different, so it would be better if there was some accepted way of referring to them unambiguously (eg among accountants there are several additional words referring to specific qualifications).

    I don't have a solution to this problem, but I think that just saying "get used to" the ambiguity is a cop-out.

  10. KindKit said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    Scare quotes often convey a level of contempt, not mere disagreement with a term. Since mocking Lt. Choi for his presumption in using the title "linguist" doesn't seem to be your intention, the scare quotes produce a false impression and distract from your point. Not what I'd call an effective use of language.

  11. Derek Balsam said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    a.s. brings up "doctors" and questions whether a nurse should have the right to call himself "doctor". If the nurse in question holds a Doctorate in Nursing or Nursing Practice, for example, then he most certainly can. He just can't call himself a physician.

    "Doctor" is actually a good study in contrasts here. Scientists, psychologists, engineers, anthropologists … and even linguists may be called "doctors" without much confusion, and without physicians and surgeons getting too miffed.

    Of course, use of the good old fashioned term "philologist" would solve the issue… ;)

  12. Ellen said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    To the commenter known as Seriously: No one is insisting that "linguist" should only be used in one way. But Bill Poser, writing on language log, would not personally use that word that way, so thus the quotes to indicate that it's not his word choice. To leave out the quotes would wrongly indicate that it's his word choice. It additionally, given the context of where the post is, indicates which meaning of "linguist". Bascially, he chose to use the word in the story, appropriately putting it in quotes, rather than use a word of his own choice.

  13. peter said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 6:14 pm

    If " "linguist" ", then shouldn't that be " "Language" Log"?

  14. Rubrick said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

    I think the problem here is that the quotation marks aren't up to the task they're charged with. It makes sense, in this forum, to indicate that this "linguist" isn't the sort of linguist usually discussed here. Had the post title lacked the quotes, I, not being familiar with the military use of the word "linguist", would have gotten to the body and said "Oh, that's not really a linguist, more like an interpreter or language expert."

    However, "linguist", with scare quotes, inevitably sounds derogatory; it reads as a judgmental 'so-called "linguist"'. Hence the rancor. The real problem is that we have such paltry punctuation available to us. If there were a symbol for "used in a different sense from the one you might expect", the problem wouldn't arise.

  15. Karen said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 6:30 pm

    Wasn't the polyglot meaning of "linguist" the first meaning?

    It's the first definition in Merriam-Webster's Unabridged.

    And the contempt implied is really why I took offense at it: "another so-called linguist" doesn't imply you dispute his job title's right to exist, it implies that you dispute his ability to do it.

  16. Ellen said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 6:37 pm

    No, Rubick, it's doesn't inevitably sound derogatory. It depends on the reader.

  17. Brian Campbell said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    a.s. writes:

    the armed forces' sense borrowing prestige from the academic sense

    Is this really the case? Most laymen don't seem to have any sense of what an academic linguist does, and think "linguist" means someone who speaks several languages. In some cases, I think they are disappointed when a linguist turns out to speak only one language fluently. So are academic linguists actually borrowing prestige from the Army variety? It would depend who you speak to.

  18. Andrew said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    This would be akin to demanding the right for nurses to call themselves doctors. After all, both work with sick patients.

    Isn't it more as if doctors were to start calling themselves 'nurses', and then became distressed when existing nurses went on using the term?

  19. David said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    It's a fair distinction, but it's probably pointless to continue to press the issue. As someone who studied formal linguistics and Arabic, I can point to just one professor (who actually was an army linguist) who was qualified as both a linguist and an Arabist. The only westerner I've ever met besides him who had anything close to that level of training in both fields was an aunt who did anthropology and comparative religion.

    I myself discovered that this line of multidisciplinary study only leads to being surrounded by recruiters and military contracting companies who have nothing to offer, and treated with suspicion by academics who assume you must be a fed or a spook. Those who actually get what you're trying to do inevitably end up steering you toward careers in the military anyway, as the Air Force apparently has a monopoly on research in Arabic linguistics.

    I won't work with the military on ethical grounds. And I've given up on working with "linguists" in the academy on grounds that there's a scarcity of people around who know what the hell they're doing in semitic languages. The political conflicts and the low quality of the company seem to send talented people elsewhere, so I'm going back to engineering, where a "linguist" is a code unit of an expert system.

  20. marie-lucie said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    David, my post above was not meant to be an either/or in all circumstances: fortunately there are people who combine both types of expertise, like you do. It is a pity that many "formal linguistics" types do not have more respect for people who are experts in specific languages, but "formal" is not the only type of linguistics around.

  21. David said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    Marie, that's quite alright. I find comfort in the fact that I'm hard at work obviating all of my irritants by eventually replacing them with robots.

  22. ben said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    To finish off your idiotic debate on terminology: the guy's not a 98G so he's not a linguist according to the Army, he's an officer, either an infantry officer or he's on branch detail.

    The Army has no discretion, especially in the case of an officer, in upholding standards of conduct. Those standards of conduct are determined by Congress and can only be changed by an act of Congress. I suspect that, even blinkered by anti-military bias, you all know that, and I think it's incredibly hypocritical of you to act like it's just mindless bigotry. You did realize that the Democrats have had majorities in both houses of Congress for two years now? Didn't think so.

    And, really, there is no shortage of translators for the military because… wait for it… they just hire locals. It's other agencies that have the real problem, for instance, we recently had a major international embarrassment because the state department, run by the more enlightened crowd, couldn't find anyone who spoke decent Russian.

  23. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    Isn't it something of an old cliche (yes yes, many counterexamples) that professors of linguistics frequently lack sufficient fluency in any given foreign language to actually function in it: they can tell you 13 interesting things about Basque syntax but couldn't successfully order you a drink if you were in the Basque Country? I have always thought it a pity that scholars of Sprachwissenschaft weren't (still?) standardly referred to in the English-speaking world as philologists.

  24. John Cowan said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 11:03 pm

    The interpreters of documents have now inherited the term "philologist"; both philology (in that sense) and linguistics (at least historical linguistics) are offshoots of the original philology research program.

    As I understand it, a "linguist" in the armed forces of the U.S. is someone who uses a language other than English on the job, and therefore might be an interrogator or a public-information officer rather than an interpreter or translator.

    "Editor" has more senses than you can shake a stick at, and I don't think the Secretary of State worries too much about sharing a title with people who type for a living.

  25. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    @ben, I would not assume that those to whom you are taking offense actually understand enough about the military to know what they are getting wrong. For example, I think the most charitable interpretation of Dr. Poser's "in spite of" sentence is that he may not know the background fact that the current policy would require affirmative Congressional action to change, since it's a very oddly phrased sentence for someone who did know that fact to have written.

  26. John said,

    May 8, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

    @DerekBalsam: I would argue that there's a difference between calling oneself "a doctor" and calling oneself "Dr. So-and-So". The former is an occupation, while the latter is a courtesy title. A D.N.P. recipient is not "a doctor" but may be referred to as "Dr. Smith". Saying someone is "a doctor" is, at least for me, synonymous with saying someone is "a physician".

    @everyone: The use of linguist to refer to foreign language specialists can indeed be confusing at times. The Army does have linguists in the more academic sense as well, for example. However, the use of the term "Army linguist" to refer to, for example, someone assigned to duties involving the use/translation/interpretation of Arabic is certainly not uncommon. I have however noticed that sometimes a phrase like "Arabic language specialist" is used in the media.

  27. Y said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 12:17 am

    From the OED:
    Oldest mention of "linguist", as it happens, is by none other than Bill (1591; Two Gentlemen of Verona IV:I): Seeing you are beautifide With goodly shape; and by your owne report A Linguist.As far as I can tell, the outlaw is complimenting Valentine on speaking so pretty in English, not on his multilingualism. Then from 1593 onward come many quotes in the sense of being a polyglot, including, in particular, Max Müller in Lectures on the Science of Language (1862, p. 24):
    And here I must protest, at the very outset of these lectures, against the supposition that the student of language must necessarily be a great linguist. He then goes on to point out (in a florid Victorian manner) what commenters here have pointed out, that a linguist (our sense) is not necessarily a linguist (his sense). The whole book is in Google Books.
    The OED shows only sporadic use of "linguist" as a "student of language" until the 20th century, where this use takes over, beginnning with Jespersen in Language: its nature, development and origin (1922, p. 64): I think I am in accordance with a growing number of scholars in England and America if I call such a man a 'practical linguist' and apply the word ‘linguist’ by itself to the scientific student of language (or of languages); 'linguistics' then becomes a shorter and more convenient name for what is also called the science of language.

    The OED also has the rare 'linguist' or 'linguished', attested in the early 1630s and meaning well-versed in languages, with the noun reinterpreted as a participle.
    In that light, I like the use of 'linguist' in the US armed forces sense more and more, as a charming anachronism, like those rare plants which only managed to survive on bombing ranges.

  28. Y said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 12:57 am

    I correct myself. The OED has one earlier citation of 'linguist', from 1588, by Thomas Harriott, referring, it seems, to mockingbirds.

  29. ben said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 1:02 am

    As I understand it, a "linguist" in the armed forces of the U.S. is someone who uses a language other than English on the job, and therefore might be an interrogator or a public-information officer rather than an interpreter or translator.

    The 98 branch of the Army is Military Intelligence. 98G is a specific enlisted job within MI, namely Crypto-Linguist, and obviously, most intelligence is not in English. I think if you're decoding signal intelligence (SIGINT) in foreign languages, you really are doing some pretty advanced linguistics. After all, no one dies if you screw up a paper in a journal, right?

    I think the most charitable interpretation…

    You're right; I deliberately picked the uncharitable interpretation so as to demonstrate to the author that he was being an ass. Whether or not gays are admitted is really a fairly minor point as the military will adapt one way or another. What matters is the principle of not using the military, and the lives of the men and women who serve in it, as a proving grounds for social experimentation or as an outlet for the latest fad in progressive thinking.

  30. marie-lucie said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 1:23 am

    JC: I don't think the Secretary of State worries too much about sharing a title with people who type for a living.

    But does President Obama introduces Mrs. Clinton as "This is my secretary"? The complement ("of State", "of the Interior", etc) is of the essence, as is the context of situation. (And secretaries, unlike mere typists, do a lot more than typing).

    JWB: professors of linguistics frequently lack sufficient fluency in any given foreign language to actually function in it: they can tell you 13 interesting things about Basque syntax but couldn't successfully order you a drink if you were in the Basque Country

    But they might also be able to tell you similar things about 13 other languages.

    Linguists who specialize in one particular language (not their own) or family are usually quite proficient in at least one member of that family. The ones who are interested in a particular theoretical point might study that point through a number of languages (but they have to rely on the work of other linguists who are much better acquainted with the languages in question).

    Y: oldest meaning of "linguist":
    a) oldest and current are not the same; for instance, "budget" at one time meant "small bag";
    b) whichever meaning of the word is considered the most important, another word (or phrase) is needed for the other meaning. On this blog, "linguist" goes with "linguistics".
    I heard a British prof use the word "linguistician" for the "academic" meaning, but I am not sure how widespread it is even in the British Isles.

  31. Andrew M said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 2:01 am

    I never tell anyone I'm a linguist; I tell them I'm a theoretical linguist. The public's definition of "linguist" is a person who is an expert at speaking languages. While I am adept at and passionate about learning and speaking languages, the profession I am training for involves theoretical linguistics.

    Considering that what (academic) linguists study is linguistics, why aren't we called linguisticists? Physicists study physics, economists study the economy, philologists study philology.

    I think the internal rhyme in the word linguisticist would sound beautiful to some and horrendous to others (Linguisticist List?), but it certainly would end the consternation among "linguisticists" stemming from the ambiguity in the use of linguist.

    Otherwise, to keep linguist, we either have to live with the ambiguity, be more precise about what kind of linguist we are, or change the public perception of what a linguist is… Perhaps we should get the word out with a sitcom about four nerdy linguistics grad students and their awkward interactions with their sexy neighbor…

  32. peter said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 2:33 am

    Y: "The OED has one earlier citation of 'linguist', from 1588, by Thomas Harriott, referring, it seems, to mockingbirds."

    Harriott was a linguist, navigator and explorer, and mathematician. He was one of the first Europeans to learn a Native American language, and the first to use the less-than symbol. ("<").

  33. Noetica said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 2:42 am

    I'm with Ellen on this:

    …Bill Poser, writing on language log, would not personally use that word that way, [hence] the quotes to indicate that it's not his word choice.

    In other words, Bill's quotes may not be scare quotes at all, strictly speaking. Some above (starting with Karen, in the first comment of all) have assumed that they are, and that they therefore deprecate what they enclose. But as Ellen suggests, Bill has striven to indicate the army's own usage. He is at least quoting the Army. It would be reasonable and charitable to assume that's all he intended to do.

    If you think that the term scare quotes applies in such cases, where the usage is merely someone else's, and merely set at a distance for that reason, then you will speak differently of the whole affair than someone assuming the narrower definition. But let's be clear and explicit about the meanings we assign to our terms, ja?

  34. Y said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 3:07 am

    I would guess academic psychologists have to deal all the time with being mistaken for therapists, even if they work on, say, visual memory in squid.

    Peter: yes, I had a quick look at Herriott's description of Virginia (though I can't find the reference to the linguist in it, only in secondary sources.) It looks fascinating.

  35. dr pepper said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 5:05 am

    In no particular order:

    I am aware of the balance of numbers in Congress. Unfortunately to say the Democratic Party is in control, is to say very little, considering how far to the right the party has been dragged. I am not surprised, only disappointed that the situation has not changed.

    Opposing bigotry is not a fad and the military should not be exempt form the requirement not to discriminate.

    My father was a cryptoanylist in the navy. And since, if he successfully broke a code, he'd have a message in japanese, he had to learn to speak and write it. Fortunately, he had a gift for languages. But as far as i know he didn't have an official title other than Lieutenant.

  36. Dierk said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 5:17 am

    To recap … it is more important to talk about the use of quotation marks and the possible definitions of a word than about the actual contents of the blog entry.

    In that case I add my irrelevant opinion. Quotation marks have a lot of uses, not just the one mentioned here as 'scare', popularised by Newspeakers from different ideological fields. For instance, there's the satirical mode, probably the most widespread [at least before scaring became popular]. I remember using quotation marks for short citations, direct speech representation, and … oh, words in a sentence that are not part of the sentence itself. Let's call the latter use 'illustration'.

    As you can see I resolved to use single quotation marks for non-baggaged usage; for satirical/ironic – the only baggaged mode I use – I reserve double quotes.

    BTW, 'Linguist' in German has, according to Wahrig Deutsches Wörterbuch, 8th ed. 2006, exactly one meaning: 'Sprachwissenschaftler' ['scientist of languages'].

    PS: Bad idea to restrict the military to incompetence just because some might take exception to ones sexual preferences.

  37. language hat said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    I agree with Rubrick and others: while I understand the quotative function of quote marks and assume that's how Bill was using them, it was an unfortunate choice because they do indeed look like "scare quotes" and carry an ineradicable tinge of depreciation, especially in a site run by linguists of the more prestigious variety. I myself would have titled it "Army fires another gay linguist" and mentioned in the body of the post that the Army usage of the term is different from the academic one.

    To recap … it is more important to talk about the use of quotation marks and the possible definitions of a word than about the actual contents of the blog entry.

    Don't be so snide. The use of quotation marks and the possible definitions of a word are valid linguistic topics, more so (frankly) than the army's hiring policies.

    You're right; I deliberately picked the uncharitable interpretation so as to demonstrate to the author that he was being an ass.

    Troll.

  38. Dave Wilton said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    What would have been wrong with titling the piece "Army fires another gay interpreter"?

    After all, Bill Poser is not quoting someone. There is no need to use "linguist" if the sense in question creates ambiguity on a blog dedicated to linguistics. While there is nothing "wrong" about using linguist = interpreter, there is no requirement to use that sense either. It's an easy way to avoid the whole scare quotes mess.

    Actually, I'm more miffed by "patrol leader." He's an army officer, not a Boy Scout. It should have been "platoon leader."

  39. Dan Lufkin said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Let me put my oar in as a former military person (USAF, retired) whose career was strongly affected by my interest in (and talent for) languages.

    The services have a battery of tests you can take to establish your ability to speak, read, and understand languages. In the enlisted grades there are language schools that prepare students to translate and interpret various languages, almost exclusively for working in intelligence, monitoring radio traffic, reading decrypted messages, etc. Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Pashto in, English out. You volunteer for school and have to serve a certain amount of time on active duty to pay it back. There are similar schools for medics, legal assistants, cooks and bakers and lots more.

    At the commissioned officer level, you probably won't go to school, but if you already speak a 'foreign' language, it will be on your record and you'll pop up when a job opens for which language ability is an advantage, but not a solid requirement. These are mostly liaison and, nowadays, community-relations assignments. If you grew up in a Lebanese family in Ypsilanti and end up out of ROTC as an infantry lieutenant, you're very likely to be a civil affairs officer in Iraq, even though Lebanese Arabic won't do you much good there. I dunno what Lt. Choi's background or duty assignment was, but it's very unlikely that he was working solely as an interpreter (or translator, as the Army insists on calling them). As a linguist, he may well have been an expert in the diachronic syntax of Arabic modal auxiliary verbs, but I don't think that cut much ice with the Army.

    I'm as much in the dark as everyone else as to why the services have been having so much trouble with gay 'linguists.' In my experience, back to the early 50s, there have always been a few gays in the military services, but the "don't ask, don't tell" rule was scrupulously observed. It wasn't until the services (particularly the USAF) got religion in the 70s that anybody gave a hoot. Of course, we had the draft back then, so we were living on a different planet.

  40. Dave Wilton said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    Ben said:

    "the guy's not a 98G so he's not a linguist according to the Army, he's an officer, either an infantry officer or he's on branch detail."

    98G is a "Crypto-linguist." There is also the specialty ("MOS" in Army jargon) 09L, which is a "translator/interpreter." According to Wikipedia, this is a relatively new MOS.

    Additionally, any soldier, regardless of MOS, who is certified as having skill in a foreign language can be given the additional skill identifier of "L." So Lt. Choi was (probably) an "11B L," or infantry officer with a skill in a language. There are lots of additional skill identifiers. Back in the day I was a "74A P 5P," or chemical officer, parachutist, nuclear/chemical target analyst.

    I'm willing to bet that the press is conflating those with an MOS of 98G and 09L with those with the additional skill identifier of L. When they're quoting statistics of numbers of gay linguists, they are probably referring to these two MOSs (no pun intended)–I imagine that statistics are more readily available on those with these primary MOSs. But individual cases cited in the news may be those with the additional skill identifier of L.

  41. Andrew said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 1:53 pm

    a. I seem to recall Tolkien, who was a Professor of Philology, saying somewhere 'I am no linguist'.

    b. I take it that when people point out that the usage 'person with knowledge of languages' is the oldest, they are not offering a positive argument – it's the oldest, so it must be right – but rather a rebuttal – it's the oldest, so it can't be condemned as a misuse. It's clear that the older use is still current, both in formal contexts, as with army linguists, and in informal ones, as in 'Oh, you're a linguist. How many languages do you know?' If this current use were an innovation, it might be reasonable to condemn it, given that it's also liable to cause misunderstanding. But it isn't.

    c. I wonder if there is a kind of distorting effect at work here. Theoretical linguists are reasonably well-placed to tell, by general observation of language-use, how, say, the word 'enormity' is used. But perhaps they aren't well-placed to tell how 'linguist' is used, as they use it of themselves every day.

  42. Claire said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    It's because of identifying myself as a linguist inevitably leads to the 'How many languages do you speak?' question (or a worry that I care about stranded prepositions) that I've started calling myself an anthropologist or prehistorian when a non-academic asks.

  43. Ed said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

    As a person who reads this site just for the heck of it, with no academic linguistics training and no military training, I immediately took them to be scare quotes. I'd say that the problem is word choice here. Taken in the context of the entire post, and assuming the quotes are seen to be scare quotes, it becomes confusing because you're not sure if the main point of the author is unhappiness with the firing of a gay man, or the fact that the military gives him a certain name.

    Take away the quotes, and the confusion would be cleared up, but I would have assumed the man was a linguist of the academic variety. Maybe I'm in the minority as a layperson who immediately thinks of a "linguist" strictly in this sense.

  44. David said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 1:31 am

    I second Ed's comment (as another person who reads this site for fun). Upon first reading, it does not look like the author is quoting a source – so care quotes were my first thought. Other than removing the quotes, another way to remove the confusion over the author's intention could be to include more than one word in the quotes, as in "Army fires another gay linguist." This would (to a layperson such as myself) make it clear that he took the wording from another source.

  45. aaron said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 5:22 am

    As a person who reads this site just for the heck of it, with no academic linguistics training and no military training, I immediately took the title to mean that Poser didn't consider the man a "real" linguist but just a guy who spoke Arabic or Pashto or whatever. When I looked up the term "scare quotes" on wpedia the first definition given was for non-acceptance of terminology, the exact usage here. I wasn't familiar with this usage being called "scare quotes"; I'm more familiar with the negative usage. Or maybe they're both the same thing, and just vary with whether or not the reader takes offence. For those who were offended here, would there have been as much offence if the title was "Army fires another army 'linguist'"?

  46. k said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 10:56 am

    I am a person who reads this blog just out of general interest, no involvement iwth academic linguistics yet. But the quotes were useful to be as I am not familiar with the usage of "linguist" as a term for an interpreter. Indeed, the army employing linguists in combat duty sounded positively odd. I would have assumed they were combining fieldwork with patrol duty or something equally odd.

  47. Private Zydeco said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    One might also maintain that the quotation marks are to be construed as serving something of a more elementary function here, that of simply attributing the single lexeme utterance "linguist" to those responsible for the authoring of the dossiers, briefs, and press-release copy in which said term appeared, in whatever sense it was meant. In this way, Mr. (Dr.?) Poser's remark is a comment on the the intransparency of that very utterance, an automatic intimation of the fact that Mr. (Dr.?) Poser himself both wishes to express a perhaps more than nominal degree of doubt as to whether Lt. Choi has also obtained any formal certification, or even any formal instruction, in linguistics in general or any of its subfields, and skepticism as to whether the armed forces should so categorically apply said title to personnel who, though multilingual, may indeed lack such expertise.

    As far as that goes, its is virtually impossible, while "acquiring" fluency in a foreign language, to not obtain a relatively thorough understanding of certain of those universal theories of language propounded by linguists of the formal pro/descriptive class, and damned impossible to not obtain even a cursory one.

  48. Rick said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    It seems as if half the time there's news of a service member getting discharged for being gay it involves an Arabic language specialist ('linguist' in military usage). Why is that? I can only think of three possible reasons:

    1. Fluent Arabic-speakers who join the military include a remarkably high proportion of gay people.

    2. Commanders at the military advanced-languages school(s) are obsessed with rooting out gays.

    3. Discharging service personnel with a fairly uncommon and highly critical skill is so abysmally stupid that it gets more attention than (say) discharging a helo pilot does.

    Rule out #1 as implausible, and that leaves some combination of #2 and #3. What the devil is going on here?

  49. Private Zydeco said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

    At the peril of sounding redundant and undignified,
    yes, "scare quotes" would do quite meetly as a term
    for the device, but, it occasions one to append the
    statement that it is frequently intonational and con-
    textual indicators which are used to imply levels of
    skepticism beyond mere questioningness, i.e. which
    veer into the realm of disapprobation, and, term-
    inological pilpul aside, the more slient point which Mr.
    (um, Dr.?) Poser is emphasizing here is that cutbacks
    in number of front-line active-duty language experts,
    whatever their matriculation, is a sign of the times.

    Which brings one to conjecture number two, albeit a wild
    one – on whatever basis it may be that an army "linguist"
    is discharged, might this not also be a sort of casualty-
    prevention strategy in disguise? Insofar as rapport betwixt
    the deployed and the civilians they encounter can be
    broadcast to remote locations for translating, thereby,
    it may be preassumed, putting less of the braintrust at
    large in the line of fire.

  50. Ken Brown said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 6:04 pm

    a.s. said: "… linguists¹ and linguists² work with languages in very different ways and have very different qualifications. This would be akin to demanding the right for nurses to call themselves doctors. After all, both work with sick patients."

    Actually no. It would be like academic biologists demanding that physicians stop calling themselves "doctor" unless they have a research degree.

    Not that that's very relevant to the argument here which is more about the meaning of "scare" quotes than the meaning of "linguist".

    Ed said: "Maybe I'm in the minority as a layperson who immediately thinks of a "linguist" strictly in this sense."

    Same here, but I work in a university with a department of Language and Linguistics.

  51. Andrew said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    Maybe I'm in the minority as a layperson who immediately thinks of a "linguist" strictly in this [the academic] sense.

    I suspect it's becoming more common owing to the popularity of Language Log.

  52. marie-lucie said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    It would be like academic biologists demanding that physicians stop calling themselves "doctor" unless they have a research degree.

    Not at all. Biologists, or other people with a Ph.D., don't introduce themselves by saying "I am a doctor", only physicians do that. Ph.D.'s might say "I have a doctorate", physicians don't use that sentence.

  53. michael farris said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 3:25 am

    "It seems as if half the time there's news of a service member getting discharged for being gay it involves an Arabic language specialist ('linguist' in military usage). Why is that?"

    I can't remember where I've read this (but I have, more than once) but I think there's long been a tradition in US government that is very suspicious of / hostile toward Arabic specialists (much more so than any other language/regional specialists). I don't know if this extends to the military but it could just be part of extra surveillance(sp?) that Arabic specialists are subject to (meaning they get caught for things others wouldn't).

    My other hypothesis is that the military/government is obliged to maintain an Arabic section but doesn't want one and so does everything possible to make it as non-functional as possible.

  54. Colin John said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    I always thought that I was a linguist because I have a degree (and still some fluency) in Modern Foreign Languages: French and Spanish, to be precise. That was the standard meaning at the time (I got my degree in the mid 70's in the UK). As part of the degree course we studied Linguistics. The lecturer in Linguistics certainly made no claim at the time to the exclusive ownership of the word 'linguist'; I'm sure I would have remembered that.
    If 'linguist' is to be taken to be used only for those with knowledge of, or qualifications in, linguistics, then that leaves the more common meaning among the public at large looking for a new word. Having said that, I didn't react to the qotes in the original post, because this is LL and I know what the common meaning is in this specific communication sub-group. That's just normal – after all, I'm also an orienteer and so among orienteers I use the words 'kite' and 'dibber' to mean something different to their meaning for the normal child or gardener.

  55. Bob said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

    When I was in the Army approximately a thousand years ago, my training went as follows: (1) basic combat training ("BCT") at Fort Ord, CA; (2) language school at what was then called the Defense Language Institute, at the Presidio of Monterey, CA; (3) further training in actually doing my job at Goodfellow AFB, outside of San Angelo, TX. When I finished all of that training my Military Occupational Specialty ("MOS") was 98G2LGM. "98G2" = "voice intercept operator," and the tail "LGM" = "… in the German language." I was thereupon sent to what was then called West Berlin, where I engaged in Defending Freedom 115 Miles Behind the Iron Curtain for the next 34 months. After a period of time working as a 98G2LGM ("voice intercept operator in the German language"), my skills improved to the point where my MOS was changed to 98G3LGM ( "voice intercept transcriber in the German language"). I would like to tell you with more precision what my job entailed, but if I did I would have to be taken out and shot.

  56. A well known acquaintance preferring to be anonymous in this particular context said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

    Well, myself, I am working at a private company, where my profession is called "linguist" in English. We are based in a non-Anglophone country and use the vernacular language in intra-company communication, but when telling what I do for a living, I either use the English word as an ad hoc borrowing, or coin a new vernaculat word which more or less explains it. I don't use the local cognate of the English word "linguist", because it has solely the connotations of the academical, theoretical linguist. But the English "linguist" is precisely the correct term for what I do, because I am basically the in-house consultant on languages, who has to learn the basics of a new language ASAP and be able to give a concise description (executive summary) on it.

    Of course I know something about academic linguistics too, but what I basically do is being a "linguist" in the everyday English meaning of the word.

  57. Linguist said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 6:53 am

    Because I studied linguistics at UC Berkeley and UT Austin when I hear linguist in an academic context, I know what it means, and because I worked closely with (or rather, among) the US military (Navy, Marines, AF, and army), when I hear linguist in a military context I also know what it means. I have no problem with the word "linguist". It's "musician" that confuses me.

  58. marie-lucie said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 8:19 am

    Linguist: when you tell someone outside of those contexts, "I am/work as a linguist", what do they think you mean?

  59. Jim said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    "To finish off your idiotic debate on terminology: the guy's not a 98G so he's not a linguist according to the Army, he's an officer, either an infantry officer or he's on branch detail."

    Wrong – anyone who passes the DLPT in a language at the required level is an Army linguist, regardless of his rank or branch, and is managed as one. FAOs are linguists and they are all officers. And wrong. He's probably an MI officer.

    So don't be so quick to call other people and their debates idiotic. Because your information is old.

    "And, really, there is no shortage of translators for the military because… wait for it… they just hire locals. "

    You must be aware of the problems with relying on unvetted and unvettable locals. You must be aware of using locals who are a perfect fit in one situation but a flagrant provocation in some other situation where their accent announces their religion or class or tribe or whatever and starts a fight by itself. And good luck with getting any of them cleared to do anything classified.

    "If 'linguist' is to be taken to be used only for those with knowledge of, or qualifications in, linguistics,…."

    Then why aren't they called linguisticians? That sesm like a more accurate term anyway.

  60. Mossy said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    @ Ben way back… the problem with the Russian translation of the reset button was NOT that there were not qualified translators in the State Dept. The problem was that Clinton's press guy didn't ask them.

    @ most everyone else. Wow. I never would have thought that this was such a hot button issue.

  61. Michael W said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 2:14 am

    The Daily Show talked about this story tonight. Interestingly, when the screen clearly showed the words "54 army linguists", host John Stewart said "an army translator" at right about the same moment. Throughout the piece he uses 'translat[e/or]' consistently (in one case where 'interpret[/er]' might be more usual).

    As I post this, it's not yet up on the website but probably will be there soon.

  62. Linguist said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 5:16 am

    Marie-Lucie:

    I'm a psychologist not a linguist so I wouldn't say that I was a linguist (despite having three degrees in the subject). But even when I was studying linguistics, if anyone asked, I'd say I was studying the theories of Noam Chomsky, just to keep it brief–everyone knew who he was, if not the details of his "theories". No one outside of academic linguistics and philosophy, maybe math, knew Richard Montague so I didn't mention him.

    That was a long time ago. By the way, if you say you are a psychologist people will either think you are a counselor or ask if you can read their minds. In reality, I study datapoints, not people, sort of the equivalent of what we used to do in "linguistics". substituting intuitions for datapoints.

  63. marie-lucie said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 8:24 am

    Linguist: Thank you for your reply. Your choice of blogging name is quite interesting. I know many people who have never heard of Chomsky and couldn't care less who he was, so I don't mention him. If asked what I do by non-academics I say "I teach linguistics" or "My specialty is linguistics" rather than "I am a linguist" (since the latter always prompts "How many languages do you speak?"). If asked what linguistics is, I say "it's about general properties of language, things that are common to all languages".

  64. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 15, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

    It's a bit late in the game for a remark on nurses and doctors, so this is tendered with an apology. I worked with a national medical research organization for many years that engaged medical professionals of every stripe. The hierarchy of doctor over nurse was so stringent that even the nurses with PhD degrees (and I knew several) were restrained by protocol from referring to themselves as doctor. Upon introduction, they found some way to announce that they were "PhD" nurses, and indicated their field of expertise. Thereafter, they were addressed as Mr. or Ms., and not Dr., or worse, "Jane," for example. It was professionally degrading.

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