Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Thoughts on a New Year of School

Welcome back, students! It's a new semester at the University at Buffalo, where I have the good fortune to study and teach in the department of linguistics. Over the coming months I will be TA-ing LIN 200, Language in Pluralistic America. That course is very dear to my heart, as it focuses on matters of linguistic diversity and prejudice, which are topics I tend to blog about here. It is a class aimed at non-linguists, and serves as an introduction to the idea that differences in people's speech are not necessarily a problem to overcome (or a sign of low intelligence, laziness, poor education, and so on).

After the first meetings with my two discussion sections, I find myself reflecting on the fact that linguistics is not a field that the average person knows a lot about. There are two false assumptions about the discipline in particular that I commonly encounter, and I should expect that at least some of my students will hold them already. Some may in fact have signed up for their first linguistics class because of these assumptions, and I should be prepared to face some surprise. I'm not entirely sure of the readership of this blog, but if you are a newcomer to linguistics yourself (especially if you've found it as one of my students), this short post might help set some of the facts straight.

Common Assumption #1: Linguists speak and study many languages. By far, the most common question linguists are asked is, "Oh, how many languages do you speak?" And as a descriptivist, I have to admit that this is a legitimate alternative definition to the word 'linguist': a person who speaks many languages. But in an academic context, the word more often refers to someone who studies language for a living, regardless of how many languages they happen to speak themselves. Some of us may speak multiple tongues, but asking about that is sort of like asking a veterinarian how many pets he or she has. The answer might be more than one, but that fact is entirely coincidental to the person's profession. (For what it's worth, my kind of linguist refers to a person who can speak multiple languages as multilingual or a polyglot.)

Common Assumption #2: Linguists are there to enforce standards on languages. Language is a beautifully complicated thing, and it's true that linguists are interested in making sense of it all. But to borrow a metaphor from Erin McKean's excellent TED Talk on lexicography, that does not make us the traffic cops of speech and writing. Our goal is to accurately describe language as it's already being used, not to endorse or enforce a standard. As scientists we want to observe raw data, and dictating what that data should look like is only going to weaken the conclusions we can draw.

One final note: Because of the scientific benefit of remaining objective, almost every linguist employs a descriptive approach to the language(s) that they study. I personally identify as a linguistic descriptivist (and not just a linguist) because I consider it my obligation to extend this objectivity into public outreach and social activism. There are a lot of unfounded stereotypes and prescriptivst notions in the world today, and I try to use my education to help counter this ignorance. This blog is part of my effort to spread the fact that from a scientific point of view, everyone’s language is inherently correct. There are no wrong ways to say something, and telling someone they’re using language incorrectly can be as hurtful as saying they’re of the wrong religion, sexual orientation, skin color, etc. My advocacy for language equality and tolerance is not something that every linguist engages in, but it stems from everything I've learned as a scientific observer of language.

In general, of course, a linguist is someone who is very interested in language. So the main thing to remember, when you happen across one of us in our natural setting, is that we like to talk about talk. This means that if there's anything you've ever wondered about how language works, feel free to ask a linguist! As long as you're okay with the possibility of having your opinions challenged, then we should get along just fine.

Class dismissed!


  1. Speaking also as a linguist, I am of the belief that it is almost futile to try to remain a-political in the study of linguistics. Even if you approach a topic without a political stance, your opinions can and often will be used to further some group's political aims. So, linguists should always be aware and beware of the potential political consequences of their research!

  2. Your blog always helps me to understand about language and linguistics. Is it possible for me to do my masters in linguistics at the buffalo university?

  3. Hi Tesal!

    Yes, my university offers Master's degrees in linguistics. You can find out more about the various programs here: http://linguistics.buffalo.edu/graduate/

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  5. I'd be a little suspicious of a vet who didn't have at least one pet, though. And I am always a bit suspicious of linguists who haven't studied any language but their own.