There are several things people like to assume about the linguists they know. I would like to debunk three of them.
#1. Linguists can speak a lot of languages.
This isn’t necessarily true. On my very first day of Introduction to Linguistics six years ago, Professor Kandybowicz made it quite clear that linguists do not have to have working profiency in many languages in order to be successful. In other words, linguists are not polyglots. We do study aspects of many languages, however, and could rattle off facts about their structures, sounds, histories, or endangered status without actually being able to speak them. (I like to make the analogy — imperfect as it is — that a literary critic could know a lot about books but never have written one herself.)
It just so happens that the sphere of people who study lots of languages and the sphere of people who speak lots of languages have quite a bit of overlap. This isn’t surprising at all: we have in common a love of language.
So before you ask me how many languages I can speak, I will tell you first that the number has no correlation whatsoever to how accomplished or competent I am in my field.
#2. Linguists are really good at word puzzles, games, etc.
My favorite games to play are word games; anybody who knows me can attest to this. I love Scrabble, Boggle, Bananagrams, and Contact. When I have spare time, I do crosswords or play Text Twist online. Yesterday, I was playing a lively game of Pirates with friends. Many of them hadn’t played before, which made the plundering rather easy. (One of my favorite chains was: rune > prune > punier > juniper). But my friends insisted, “Oh, it’s because you study linguistics!”
No, linguists aren’t all good with words. We’re no better than the average person at puns, magical anagrams, or the verbal section of the GRE. Honestly, I’ve never studied anything in any of my linguistics classes that would help me in a game of Scrabble; I like these kinds of games because I’m fascinated by the flexibility of the Latin alphabet and the English language. It’s highly likely that this same interest is also at the root of my current academic pursuits, but it has never been the case that linguistics has helped me hone my anagrammatic prowess.
#3. Linguists are grammar sticklers.
False. But I totally understand why people would think this. In fact, I am a grammar stickler. For two years, I answered hundreds (well, maybe a little over one hundred) of queries from fellow ESL teachers about English grammar. Most of the time, they stemmed from esoteric bullet points from outdated textbooks or convoluted sentences that a co-teacher needed help parsing. Sometimes, the search for a satisfactory answer took a very long time, but I really enjoyed it.
One thing I absolutely never did, however, was reply to a question about grammaticality with absolute authority. I’d often see people write things along the lines of: “Nobody talks like that! Your textbook must be wrong/must have been written by a non-native speaker.” As a teacher and a supporter of having standards in language education, I was all for giving my opinion on what I thought was right. But I wouldn’t use a “nobody talks like that” argument to support it, because for all I knew, some native speakers out there do talk like that, and it’s perfectly understandable. In my syntax class, we judge the soundness of a huge variety of rather weird English sentences, and more often than not, what sounds “correct” to one person’s ears sounds bizarre to another’s. And we’re just a handful of native English speakers, to say nothing of the variation you’ll get in the English-speaking world of three hundred million.
Then there were these: “Technically, such-and-such-fusty-grammatical-structure is correct, but we ignore that rule all the time.” And I think, But that’s exactly the point! We do ignore old rules all the time, and that’s what’s so awesome about English (and all languages in general). Languages are in constant change, and that excites us linguists. If kids these days are speaking English in a way that offends the delicate sensibilities of my old, conservative ears, I would actually be more interested in studying why such a deviation has occured in these speakers than in telling them that they’re wrong.
So when my roommate links me to Buzzfeed’s latest listicle, “[Arbitrary Number] Horrible Crimes Committed Against the English Language” (which I am linking to because it’s funny, not because I think a “word crime” should actually be a thing that exists), I chuckle a bit. And then he says, “I thought you’d like this because you’re a linguist.” And I have to wonder, when did it become the general assumption that someone who studies linguistics would be more prone to laugh at other people’s language mistakes? Or even simply more critical of them?
In short, I’m not down with linguistic prescriptivism, the idea that there is a “proper” English that everyone must be able to speak and write in order to make the world a better place. Linguists shake their heads when they are equated with the “my way or the highway” grammarians of the world. You want to talk about word crimes? Instead of jumping on Weird Al’s bandwagon of petty pedantry, try putting on the brakes and deconstructing the motivation behind musical parodies (and articles, blog posts, and classroom lectures) that fixate on bad grammar. I’m a fan of this Language Log piece on using the “Word Crimes” parody to actually guide thoughtful discussions about the structure of English and issues of sociolinguistic bias.
And here’s an article from Slate’s Lexicon Valley on the value of differences in individuals’ varieties of speech and why so many people argue needlessly about which English is “best”. Both of these are really excellently written, so I hope you’ll give them a read.
So there you have it: common misconceptions about linguists busted! And although my vehement denial of their truth value may seem a trifle hypocritical, since I readily own up to all three, at least you know now that I represent more of a stereotype than a mold. I also hope that you’ve learned a little bit more about my field of study along the way.
What are the most cliché assumptions people make about your occupation or field of study?
Word of the Day: ultracrepidarian, a relatively recently-coined word not yet found in the OED (emphasis on yet, because, well, it might get there eventually!). The etymology of this word is fun: it comes from the Latin phrase “Ne ultra crepidam judicaret,” or “Do not judge beyond (ultra) your own shoes (crepidam),” in reference to a shoemaker who had the audacity to speak ill of a famous artist’s painting. Ultracrepidarian now refers to someone who criticizes beyond their sphere of knowledge, or more simply, talks smack about stuff they don’t understand.