My first instinct was to call Linguistics the unicorn of university majors, but then I realized that was inaccurate.
It’s not that we’re invisible or super rare or difficult to seek out. In fact, there are more and more Linguistics majors as the years go by. No, after giving it some thought I’ve decided that linguists are the jinn of academic mythology–because no matter how dizzyingly diverse and colourful and widespread we get, people insist that all we do is live in lamps and grant wishes of variable number.
I’m in my fourth year of a Linguistics and Language Studies major at Glendon, and I’ve recently made up my mind to specialize in the Language Endangerment, Documentation, and Revitalization Stream. Before that, I spent my high school years making up languages of varying degrees of complexity and absurdity. (NB: the word for that is conlanging, and I’ll get back to it later.) Long story short, I’ve had plenty of time to sort the fact-wheat from the fiction-chaff when it comes to linguists and linguistics in general.
And to be honest I’m kinda tired of counting down the seconds between saying “I’m studying linguistics” and hearing “so you’re going to be a speech pathologist?”
So in the interest of sparing all my fellow academic jinn the same fate, I present to you some True Facts About The Linguist.
Put simply, linguistics is the scientific study of language. A linguist explores language form, language meaning, and language context; linguists view language as a ‘tool for making meaning’, and it’s our job to understand this tool from as many perspectives as possible. Some (but not all!) of those perspectives are:
- Phonetics and Phonology – the study of a) the production of ‘speech sounds’, or sounds that make up human language, and b) how those speech sounds are organized into specific systems per language.
- Morphology – the study of word formation (an example: one of the longest words in English, antidisestablishmentarianism, is made up of the following morphemes: anti-dis-establish-ment-ar(y)-ian-ism. Each of these lends an extra layer of meaning to the newly-formed word!)
- Syntax – the study of phrase and sentence structure.
- Semantics – the study of meaning in language, e.g. why do English speakers say ‘pumpkin’ when they mean a pumpkin. Think about it.
- Sociolinguistics – the study of how language is affected by social contexts such as race, gender, class, etc.
Other disciplines include neurolinguistics, computational linguistics (in two words, artificial intelligence), historical linguistics, and more!
What a Linguist is NOT (necessarily):
- A grammar nazi – there’s a fancy-schmancy term for this in linguistic jargon (would that be lingua-lingo?), and the term is prescriptivism. It’s contrasted with descriptivism, which is what is drilled into your skull as The Better Thing To Be in every Intro to Linguistics and Structure of English class at Glendon. (Thanks, Tom Wilson and Hitay Yükseker!) Instead of touting a “right” way to communicate, linguists simply study the ways that people DO communicate, without any regard to whether they’re right or not because, hey, they seem to be working for everybody else. Don’t fix what ain’t broke, and all that.
- A polyglot – from the Ancient Greek polys (many) and glotta (language, lit. tongue). Essentially a fancier way of saying multilingual. The study of linguistics differs from that of any one language in specific–linguists examine the underlying structures that are inherent in ALL languages, such as word formation (morphology) or sentence structure (syntax). Polyglots study foreign languages for the sake of being able to communicate in those languages. To put it simply, I’m a polyglot because I speak English and French and Spanish and Japanese and Ojibwe and Serbian; I’m a linguist because I know that English and Japanese are isolative languages, French and Spanish are inflective languages, and Ojibwe’s hanging out in the agglutinative sector. Don’t worry about it.
- A translator/interpreter/speech therapist – self-explanatory. This is one of those “every square is a rectangle but not every rectangle is a square” things; a linguist might choose to get into one of these three careers, but there’s a whole smorgasbord of other exciting things to pick from, some of which I’ll showcase below!
What Do You Do With a B.A. in
There are all sorts of things linguists can get up to once they’ve got their degree. Some go on to do graduate studies (like I’m planning on doing); some will become professors at university; some will go into the corporate sector and work with companies and ad agencies to help them word their messages juuust right. And yes, some will end up as translators or interpreters or speech therapists/pathologists.
BUT IT GETS WAY WEIDER/COOLER THAN THAT:
- You can help to preserve endangered languages! As previously mentioned, Glendon’s actually got a specialized Honours BA for this. Of the 7000-8000 languages that are spoken on Earth, roughly two per month go extinct. Language is culture, and culture is language, so losing the languages of small communities and tribes due to globalization/colonization is a devastating loss to our ethnosphere. As a linguist, you can help to turn all this around, to document endangered languages before they disappear forever–or even to revitalize those languages and bring them back into their communities!
- You can make languages up for money! (Remember conlanging? Here we are.) If anyone remembers the James Cameron Avatar movie, they might be surprised to know that the alien language of the film, Na’vi, is a fully-functioning language that you can learn right over here. Same thing with Game of Thrones’ Dothraki. The people who constructed these languages got paid a tidy sum for their work, to boot.
- You can win the war! Well, no, not right now, but historically linguists were employed by their governments as cryptographers. So if WW3 ever happens and you want to do your country proud, you just might get to be a codebreaker.
More Like Ling-wow-stics Amirite
Horrific puns aside, Linguistics is a field of study that is really incredible. From the acoustic properties of individual sounds all the way up to the vast societal contexts that are hidden just under the skin of our conversations, linguistics offers an understanding of that most ancient and versatile human tool: language. It’s important to the world–and moreover, it’s important to me, and it’s equally important to me to know that people understand what I love and why I’m so passionate about it. I hope this has debunked a couple linguist myths for you. You’ll see me gushing plenty more about it in weeks to come–but for now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to polish my lamp and eat some baklava.
* The Golem and The Jinni is a sumptuous, slow-burning Bestseller of a book, choc full of historical and mythological accuracy about Jewish- and Iranian-American culture. 4/5 stars; would recommend to a friend.