However, it's always seemed to me that there's a little semantic problem with calling a specialist in linguistics a 'linguist', rather than a, um, *linguisticsist, or… something. In any case, it doesn't seem so ridiculous to me to start with the assumption that a 'linguist' is a person who speaks many languages, rather than a person who is expert in the scientific study of language.
We've had variations on this theme back to the early days of LL, as in Mark's post from 2003 discussing Lynne Murphy's aphorism, "Asking a linguist how many languages (s)he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases (s)he has."
"Linguistician" was suggested some decades ago, I don't remember by whom, as an alternative to "linguist". It never caught on, probably because the guy who proposed it was doing so a little contemptuously.
*Gulp.* I'd like to offer a partial defence of the how-many-languages people.
The jokes in the article above (necessarily) involve attributes that aren't particularly complimentary. Likewise BZ's quote above, "Asking a linguist how many languages (s)he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases (s)he has."
But for the non-linguists (in both senses) among us, speaking lots of languages is something awe-inspiring. And the fact is that lots of linguists are indeed polyglots. So while I like to think that I wouldn't be crass enough to ask the question, I can understand the instinct, and I think it comes primarily from admiration and envy.
I'm neither a linguist nor a polyglot and can't recall haven't fallen into the "how many languages" trap, but I can see how it happens. We know that speaking lots of languages is a superpower we don't have. As Pflaumbaum said, we feel admiration or envy. On the other hand, as Aaron said, we don't know what linguists do. We suspect linguists may pretend to the scientific study of language without knowing languages. We find this possibility funny. We don't realize that the study of language has nothing to do with actual languages.
My point is every profession has this exact same issue. Marine biologists spend their entire professional lives on boats, in submarines or scuba diving. Anesthesiologists inject people with drugs and then just stand there and watch the surgeon. Opthamalogists ask you what direction the E is pointing and give you a pair of glasses.
Principals are overpaid teachers with no students. Archaeologists are all Indiana Jones. Chemists mix liquids together in beakers. Linguists study languages and tell people not to end sentences with a preposition.
Do meteorologists get asked what channel they’re on? I ask this because there was a thread on Reddit about female meteorologists all wearing the same dress. (http://imgur.com/AlGloKs) Had a me a bit perplexed. When I (gently, humbly) suggested that weather presenter and meteorologist are separate (but somewhat overlapping) categories, I got seriously down-voted – as if I was dissing the smarts and scholarship of weather reporters. It was brutal. I’m over it now, but.
Pity the poor astronomers. The word astrology predates astronomy by at least one hundred years. For a long time, astrology was considered part of astronomy. But, the differentiation took close to three hundred years.
Despite a qualification in linguistics, I don't self-identify or introduce myself as a linguist. Though I once replied to a rather vague job advertisement for 'linguists' and was asked which languages I spoke – they were looking for the 'speaks other languages' type. I politely pointed out the difference and they didn't reply.
When I was a mathematical research student, a lot of people were amazed that there was anything for me to do, as surely all of maths was already known (!). Most other non-mathematicians simply had no idea of what a mathematician might get up to (apart from ‘practical’ things like accountancy).
It was always a bit of an uphill struggle explaining what I did with my time, so I decided to become a linguist instead.* Little did I know that I’d constantly be asked which languages I studied/spoke. (I speak two and a bit languages, including English, but that’s not the point.)
It seems that almost every discipline is poorly comprehended by outsiders.
* That’s not a strictly veridical account of the sequence of events.
By coincidence I just read the following in Jespersen's Language: Its Nature, Development and Origin:
The word 'linguist,' on the other hand, is not infrequently used in the sense of one who has merely a practical knowledge of some foreign language; but 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) . . .
Since I love learning to speak foreign languages and this is well known by my friends and coworkers, I get introduced a lot as "a talented/keen/(nobody can resist) cunning linguist". I always want to say "no no! Not really!"
But then this raises another question: We allow people in some disciplines–history comes to mind–to call themselves "historians" if they write books and seriously engage with the subject over a long period of time, whether PhD'd and tenured or merely self-taught and hugely curious. But we wouldn't normally do this with a science journalist who is experienced and knowledgeable about (say) physics. I consider some of my brilliant economics colleagues "economists", though I'm pretty sure they'd reject the label.
So what do you need to be called an economist/linguist/historian/physicist, if you're not the archetypal PhD researcher? Usage varies by country, too: In German if you did your undergrad law you could say without any hesitation "Ich bin Jurist", which looks pretentious but really just means "I studied law."
Back to "linguist", is someone who has keenly studied five or ten foreign languages, speaking some of them fluently, with a good explicit knowledge of how they work, how they differ, etc, not a linguist because they don't have a PhD? I'm not trying to claim the label: to reiterate, if someone asked "are you a linguist?" the first thing I'd say is "no", but I realize I might be violating their expectations. And I *am* a descriptivist: don't we have to allow the polloi a vote?
@Lane: I think a bachelor's degree is generally sufficient, assuming the person in question is happy to be identified as a linguist. Then again, my academic background is in science but I'm not a practising scientist, so that's another grey area.
When I get called a linguist (whether casually or in formal contexts), I make a point of correcting the source: to 'writer', 'editor', 'language writer', etc. On my blog's introduction I describe myself as a 'swivel-chair linguist', but that's a joke by analogy with 'armchair'.
Linguists I know seem more willing to allow it, as though I were an honourary linguist because I write about language in a more or less scientific/descriptive way – but I wouldn't dream of it. I don't have the formal training, nor have I retained fluency in the various languages that might once have licensed the 'polyglot' sense.
RP: Yes indeed. This is fundamentally different from other cases; with, say, 'ichthyologist', people know it's a scientific specialisation, but are unclear about what it involves; with 'linguist' people are just using it to mean 'person with knowledge of languages', which is indeed a meaning it has.
Does anyone know how 'linguist' became the accepted term for students of linguistics? I suppose 'anaesthetist' is a parallel, actually, but it doesn't seem to be the norm. Someone who studies statistics is a statistician (I believe 'statist' has been used in this sense, but it certainly isn't normal); someone who works in logistics is a logistician, not a logist. Going beyond '-istics' to plain '-ics' we have mathematicians, aestheticians.
@Bob Ladd: Sandy Nicholson already addressed this pretty well: "So what do you do all day?", "Isn't that done?", "Can't computers just do everything now?" all come up. I've never been asked how many numbers I know, but mathematicians are sometimes asked how many prime numbers they know, or how many digits of pi.
But the most common, and most frustrating, reactions are comments along the lines of "You must be really smart! I was terrible at math. I can't even balance my checkbook", usually spoken with distinct pride in this deficiency. (Many mathematicians, who in fact are not human pocket calculators, are also bad at balancing their checkbooks.) I suspect that linguists are less often faced with people who actively take pride in their ignorance of languages, or of language.
According to the OED, "linguist" in the sense of "person who is skilled in the learning or use of foreign languages" predates the "expert in or student of language" sense by several decades.
Of course "linguistician" would have been clearer — one generally thinks of "-ician" as a practitioner of "-ic" (physician, logician, rhetorician) or "-ics" (most of the others). "Physicist" is an exception; it wasn't coined till around 1840 because "physician" was already taken.
But then linguists aren't particularly well known for sensitivity to the nuances of language.
It's possible that some people who ask us this actually know what our kind of linguist is, but I don't recall ever being wrong when I've assumed otherwise. One of these Bayesian people could probably say something about how the use of this question should update the probabilities we assign to the questioner having one or other meaning in mind.
Unless the idea of linguistics as an academic discipline magically breaks through into the public consciousness so that quiz shows feature questions about unaccusativity and things alongside the discoveries of physics, biology, and so on, we're either stuck with having to explain this every time we introduce ourselves or to introduce ourselves in another way.
Come on, guys, fair's fair. Let's see the learned post proving that the "peevers" are ignorant, that "linguist" has been used to describe a person who knows foreign languages since two milleniums before Chaucer, etc. :-)
[(myl) Or you could take this as an opportunity to learn the difference between complaining and joking…]
Another (admittedly obscure) reason for using 'physicist' rather than 'physician' is that a person who practices metaphysics is, in fact, a metaphysician. Wouldn't want to introduce confusion about that.
Not just mathematicians. Physicists too, we always get sob stories, "Ooooh I was terrible at physics, failed in in Grade Ten and took biology instead." But what I really am is a physical oceanographer. Unfortunately upon hearing "oceanographer" everyone assumes I'm a marine biologist (also because I'm female) and start asking me about whales, and then I have to inform them that physical oceanographers don't much care about whales, we do currents and waves and circulation and tides and mixing and turbulence and a whole lot of math and computer modelling. Oh yeah, and acoustics. Then they rapidly lose interest. Unless they think to then ask me about whale calls. Whales! What's the big deal exactly with whales? :)
As for linguists, it's not just the US military who use it for "interpreter", it's a job description in certain Canadian government organizations as well.
@Mark Meckes: I completely agree that one of the most frustrating things for a mathematician is the sense of pride that so many non-mathematicians have in their mathematical incompetence. It really is bewildering.
If you mention linguistics to someone, on the other hand, assuming you’ve got over the ‘how many languages do you speak?’ barrier, you might find that they want to talk about how interested they are in words (in some nebulous sense), or else they’ll try to embroil you in some prescriptivist grammatical controversy (or just as often something to do with punctuation), or they’ll say that they love the sound of the particular language you study (but they don’t understand it).
It’s rather rare for people to take pride in linguistic incompetence as such (at least on a practical level) – though you do come across people who are dismissive of competence in other languages, given that ‘everyone speaks English’. Then again one reason you’d be unlikely to hear someone boast that ‘I was never any good at linguistics at school’ is that linguistics isn’t (as far as I’m aware) taught as a school subject, so it’s hard to make a direct comparison with maths.
@Bean: I studied physics as an undergraduate too (in another era). But I wasn’t so good at it. :o)
I always ask a mathematician "What's your Erdös number?" They always react positively.
[(myl) Presumably this is because negative Erdös numbers are as yet undefined — though the concept is discussed here and here. Though maybe you're just promoting the idea? There are probably some possible worlds with imaginary or complex Erdös numbers as well, and perhaps even some transfinite ones.
In this sense, linguists are lucky. Tell someone you're a historian and the first thing they do is expound their personal theories on why historians have everything wrong. I'd much rather be asked "how many histories do you have?"
I don't get the comic. Are linguists asking these questions based on what the words' roots literally mean? Because then it doesn't make any sense. X-ologist is someone who studies X, not someone who has many things that have to do with X. Anesthesiologist is the closest one to make any sense, but it is still "one who studies not feeling", not "one who doesn't feel".
And then there's the ethical aspect: How many languages are German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian? I usually say 2½. If it were Iceandic, Basque, Mandarin. Urdu, Tongan and Quechua then it really would be six.
I studied Philosophy and was always at a bit of a loss to answer the question "So, what is your Philosophy, then?"
But why? Surely, if your studied philosophy you have to be able to more or less competently classify your own preferences. Even if linguists are offended by being ask how many languages they speak they can tell for sure which language do they speak as in I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.
I often use "academic linguistics" for sense disambiguation.
I suppose one does see a sort of folk physics on the internet, but relatively few laypeople are inclined to argue technical physics with theoretical physicists based on their experience moving around in 3D space — whereas (in my experience) non-linguists often suppose their language knowledge is on par with trained linguists because they happen to _speak_ a language.
Jonathan Badger: MattF, but biologists are biologists and not *biologyists, chemists chemists and not *chemistryists, etc.
To me, what comes to mind when I read chemist is not someone who studies chemistry, but someone who dispenses drugs in a pharmacy. The first thing to that comes to mind for what to call someone who studies chemistry as a profession is chemistry professor. Which only works if they also teach.
I don't think that linguists "ought to" know multiple languages per se — but the reason the comic doesn't ring true is that linguists are reminded, upon hearing this question, of the fact that they would undoubtedly be better at their jobs if they did know more languages.
I was once behind a linguist at the checkout in Trader Joe's. The cashier was making small talk. When the customer told him she was a linguist, he launched into a series of innocent and very well intentioned, but misconceived, statements about language. The one I remember was "I've always wanted to learn Latin because it's the root of all languages." All of this frustrated her to no end as she tried unsuccessfully to explain what linguistics really is. At one point, I recommended to the cashier that he might be interested in reading Language Log. The linguist was very surprised that I had even heard of this blog. I think it made her day.
But … you guys are trying to figure out how language(s) work, and there's no sign in front of the field saying how many languages there are or what the importance of the apparent multiplicity of languages is. Learning one more language and one more and one more, hoping thereby to find out what's going on, is as much an act of faith as jumping in without learning those particular languages. As long as you keep asking questions and following whichever path seems likeliest to give some clues, you'll keep finding a few answers and a lot more questions. Isn't that how science is supposed to work, anyway?
Knowing lots of languages is probably not a job requirement for a linguist, however I can think of one very famous linguist who would be a lot better off if he knew a couple of languages other than English. Especially ones that are as dissimilar from English as possible.
At least, that's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.
Gordon's comment kind of fits me in a way. I have a PhD in atmospheric science, but I am in no way a forecast meteorologist. Every so often when someone learned of my degree, they asked me what the weather was going to be tomorrow. I had to say I only know what I see on TV.
Noam the Chomsky? Not really. Remember he was looking for “universal grammar” which by definition (his) could be found via a close examination of any language. For him, language, like mathematics, was basically one thing; it was in principle the same in all minds. He was not doing empirical science; he was doing rationalist science.
Besides, Chomsky did know some other languages (Arabic and Hebrew); they played no role in his investigations of UG as well as I can remember.
I took Chomsky's Syntactic Structures class at MIT in 1957 and he included many examples from Arabic. His father (William, q. G.) was a noted scholar of Hebrew and author of the definitive Hebrew grammar in those days.
As a math student I also often have people telling me, soon after meeting me, how they are so bad at math. However, I definitely don't hear any hint of "pride" in their voice. I think they are being friendly, and mild self-deprecation is pretty normal in small-talk. Also, I think math really is pretty difficult for a lot of people and this is just the first association their mind makes when they think of it.
Ask high school teachers. Other than math and science teachers, plenty of them are afraid of high school math too. And they presumably went to high school. It seems unfortunate, somehow, as if they're missing out on something valuable.
@Dan Lufkin, DWalker:
My parents both have an Erdos number too, it's 5 (and I suspect it might actually be 4 for the father). Neither of them is a mathematician.
On-topic, modern linguists (like most other scientists) usually need to know, at least, their country's main language and English. For most of the world, this comes up to more than one language; it is not the case in the USA, however.
@myl wrote: "There are probably some possible worlds with imaginary or complex Erdös numbers as well, and perhaps even some transfinite ones."
I recently saw someone claim that they had slept with someone who had slept with someone who had an Erdös number of 4, as a result of which, this person now claimed to have a Erdös number of (4+2i). :)
It's not a totally illogical question, and not only because of the two common interpretations of the word "linguist". Did anyone point out yet that people who study linguistics do, in fact, also tend to know a lot of languages? On one hand, learning several languages is what got me interested to begin with in what was going on underneath. On the other hand, studying linguistics certainly made it easier, for me, to learn new languages. And I wasn't nearly as far gone as the guy from my (linguistics) department who wanted to learn every language spoken in Europe after 1000 C.E. to the level sufficient that, if he were dropped there out of the blue, he could still get along.
By the way: I tend to use the term "theoretical linguist" which distinguishes it sufficiently from practical or pedagogical linguistics.