When I tell people I study linguistics, most people are curious and want to learn more. Here are some questions I'm frequently asked and some answers.
What is linguistics anyway?
Linguistics is the study of language as a cognitive ability. Questions linguists ask are - How do children learn language? How do people understand speech sounds? How and why does language change over time? How is language processed in the brain?
Do linguists perform simultaneous translation?
No. Simultaneous translation is a specialized ability usually associated with people who have spoken two or more languages since childhood. Some linguists HAVE speciliazed in studying bilingual speakers, but many study other fields outside translation.
How many languages do linguists have to know?
All linguists are exposed to data from a number of languages, but may only be able to speak their own native language proficiently. In the real world, linguists speak about 2-4 languages proficiently (we did get into this because we liked foreign languages!) and are well-acquainted data from about 5-15 languages depending on experience and interests. But few honest linguists will claim to be proficient in 80 languages!
What do linguists actually study?
Linguists specialize in different components of language. Although some linguists perform psychological studies, many study texts or ask for native speaker judgements to collect their data. Some subgroups include:
- Phonology/Phonetics - The study of speech sounds
- Morphology - The study of word structure
- Syntax - The study of how words are put together to create sentences and phrases
- Semantics/Pragmatics - How meaning is structured and communicated via language
- Historical Linguistics - How language changes over time
- Language Acquisition - How children insticntively acquire the ability to use language
- Applied Linguistics - How to effectively teach adults and teens a second language
- Computational - Studying artifical intelligence & cognitive models of language
- Sign Language Studies - How sign language has similar and distinct properties from spoken language
- Sociolinguistics - How languages & dialects from different socio-economic groups interact and change
What do you do with a linguistics degree?In addition to teaching linguistics at the college level, linguists have been known to:
- Observe or test unconscious linguistic behavior to develop models of cognition or communication.
- Specialize in teaching English as a second language (ESL) or other non-English languages.
- Work with software developers on language-based applications including grammar checkers, search engines, natural language processing, speech recognition and artifical speech production.
- Decipher and interpret ancient texts.
- Consult on language policy issues (bilingualism, foreign language education, etc.)
- Work with communities of minority languages on maintaining and teaching their linguistic heritage.
- Create artifical languages for their novels or favorite sci-fi show.
- A bachelor's in linguistics (combined with the right electives) can also be a good gateway to law school, international business, psychology, computer science, English language teaching abroad and more.
In my experience, linguistics has given me a better appreciation of world cultures, improved my writing, and sharpened my reasoning. Not a bad educational payoff.
What do you think of bilingual education?
To be incredibly vague, my answer is "It depends on the context". Balancing the needs of language use between ease of communication and preserving ethnic heritages is quite complicated. What is important to me is that any decision consider linguistic and language acquisition principles, not just raw emotion.
What do linguists think about chat/texting language?
A lot of people observing texting/chatting/tweeting are interested/worried about the fact that lots of abbreviations are included (e.g. LOL, :), c u l8tr), however the heavy use of abbreviations in writing is not unique to texting. Medieval manuscript writers (and almost all manuscript professionals in any culture) are notorious for creating symbols and abbreviations (e.g. , &,#, e.g., i.e., ...). The reasons for abbreviating in manuscripts and texting are essentially the same – it saves space and is less effort. Manuscript writers were worried about writers cramp, but texters are worried about blackberry thumb. As Txting, the Gr8 Db8 points out, typing text on a numeric phone pad is very much a PITN.
What is unique about social media language is how informal language is being recorded in a written medium. Traditional writing genres tend to be very formal and very carefully crafted for a public audience. In the past, it would be rare that a document potentially accessible to billions of viewers would be filled slang, swearwords or talk about what you ate last night. No longer. In past eras, linguists would have to rely on graffiti or the some personal letters/diaries to find information about colloquial language. But thanks to social media, the 21st century colloquial language will be extremely well-documented...providing the servers remain in service.
Where Can I Learn More?
These books introduce linguistic concepts, but don't assume knowledge of linguistic theory.
The Language Instinct (TPB) (1995) by Steven Pinker, Harper
This explains the rationale for many assumptions of theoretical linguistics very well.
The Articulate Mammal (Revised Ed., TPB) (1998) by Jean Aitchinson,
This approaches linguistics from a primatological point of view and talks a bit about evolution.
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Languages by David Crystal, Cambridge University Press.
Contemporary Linguistics (textbook) by William O'Grady, Michael
Dobrovolsky, et. al. St. Martin's Press.
This is an actual linguistics textbook, and has come in several editions. It both complete and readable.
I would read something like this first before opening up any textbook on syntax, phonology, morphology, historical linguistics.
Language in the USA (2004) by Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford, Cambridge University Press.
A good overview of both usage and varietes of American English and other important languages including Spanish.
In Search of the Indo-Europeans (1991) by J. P. Mallory. Thames & Hudson.
I recommend this book because it defines the parameters for connecting linguistics and archaeology fairly well.
Linguistics and Literature (1997) by Nigel Fabb. Wiley-Blackwell.
Much on the book focuses on the phonology of poetic meter, but it also discusses how a linguist would approach literary genres and narrative structure.
Albion Seed (1989) by David Hackett Fischer. Oxford University Press.
Although this book was written by a historian, his "language way" information is still linguistically valid and provides important insights into the formation of the American English dialects.
History of Specific Languages:
These are some of my favorite resources, but I would advise that 1) you should be prepared to dig into some linguistic theory, particularly sound change and 2) familiarity with the language is a plus.
Origins of the English Language (1986) by Joseph H. Williams
There seems to be a love/hate relationship with this book, but I like it for several reasons. One is that the exercises highlight the process behind different historical developments within English. Although memorizing sound rules and etymologies is handy, it is the process that needs to be understood for future explorations. I also think the links between external social/political developments and linguistic changes are well highlighted and the price is quite reasonable in comparison to other volumes. I will say that the modern linguistic notation is used which may be a turn-off for some readers, but again is what the linguistics professionals are using.
Oxford English Dictionary (etymologies)
There are several etymological dictionaries available, but since the Oxford English Dictionary gives a detailed etymology for every word, this is my go-to reference when a word-origin question arises. If you can't afford your own copy, you may be able to access it through your public or state university library (check to see if they can access the online version). I confess that this is one Penn State library service I take advantage of .... a LOT.
A History of the Spanish Language (1991) byRalph Penny
This is an introduction to the history of Spanish from Latin to today.
Note: Do not pay $100+ dollars for the hardback. I susepect the more reasonably priced original paperback is available from a reputable used book dealer.
The Foundations of Latin (2002) by Phil Baldi
For full disclosure, I should mention that I know the author and that this is also semi-technical book in that it contains a lot of information about Proto-Indo-European foprms and Greek (inthe Greek script). However, if you wish to be a Latin language Jedi master, you will need a book like this to give you the historical background of Latin, and, let's face it, one of the charms of Latin is that it is not so easy to master, although I have found very useful for all sorts of reasons.
Some Linguistics Websites include:
- Linguist List Common Questions and Answers - linguistlist.org/ask-ling/faq-index.cfm
- Overview of Field by Linguistics Society of America - www.lsadc.org/info/ling-fields.cfm
- Why Major in Linguistics (LSA) - www.lsadc.org/info/ling-faqs-whymajor.cfm
- Glossary of Language Terms from Summer Insitute of Linguistics - www.sil.org/linguistics/glossary
- Lexicon of Linguistics - www2.let.uu.nl/UiL-OTS/Lexicon/
- UCLA Language Profiles -www.lmp.ucla.edu/profile.aspx?menu=004
- Omniglot Writing Systems and Languages of the World - www.omniglot.com
Contact Me at - email@example.com. If I can't help you, I'll point you to someone who can.