Linguistics and languages

When I mention to people that I’m a linguist or have studied linguistics, they often ask something like “Oh, which language(s)?” The popular idea of a linguist seems to be someone who studies / speaks quite a few languages, and linguistics is thought of as studying languages, rather than the study of language in general. As I have studied both linguistics and quite a few languages, I could call myself a linguist in both the scientific and popular senses, and to avoid explaining linguistics every time I often go along with the popular definition.

Most of the people I met in Ireland were interested in languages, and some of them were interested in linguistics, including an American lass who is keen to study linguistics and document some of the native languages of North America, particularly of Alaska. There was also someone else who is studying Irish Sign Language (ISL – Teanga Chomharthaíochta na hÉireann) and was keen to find out about British Sign Language (BSL). Very few ISL signs were familiar to me, and it seems to have more in common with French and American Sign Languages than with BSL.

When people discovered that I speak Welsh, quite a few of them asked me it was hard to learn, as they think it looks very difficult to pronounce. My Welsh-speaking friends make similar comments about Irish. I find Welsh spelling easier as most letters only have one sound and all letters are pronounced, whereas most letters have at least two sounds in Irish and quite a few of them are not pronounced.

13 thoughts on “Linguistics and languages

  1. I’d always taken “linguist” to mean someone who studied language. Never really noticed the “polyglot” sense. Perhaps it’s because the US is so crushingly monolingual. If someone is “bilingual” it’s a near-certainty that English is their L2.

    Irish was the first language I tried learning on my own; I did it without any audio aids and of course didn’t get very far. I remember the spelling being daunting, but I thought it looked simple compared to Welsh. That’s of course because I couldn’t grasp that Welsh might use the Latin alphabet in a different way than English. W as a vowel? Does not compute!

  2. I have studied a number of languages in various scripts and still find Irish spelling daunting. Perhaps I need more exposure, or just better material…any suggestions?

  3. I get that all the time when I tell people I study linguistics in college. More people at my university understand the difference, which aided by the fact that Cognitive Science, Linguistics, and as of this year Psychology are all in the same department, but outside everyone asks what languages to which I usually give a language or two I’ve studied and then sometimes say, “but that’s not really what it’s about…” I do find, though, that most of my friends in linguistics do enjoy learning languages and at least aspire to by polyglots.

    Also, I would like to say that at least half of the reason I choose to study linguitics is Omniglot. I found it when I started learning languages in high school and it bridged the gap between that and linguistics, especially phonetics/phonology.

  4. If we’re just talking about European languages, I don’t think Irish spelling is any more daunting a challenge than is English or, for that matter, Manx. An interesting topic perhaps would be the case for or against spelling reform in English, Irish or any language, for that matter.

  5. The science of linguistics is not only about one language or speaking few languages. It is about comparing systems applied in different languages, and thus tracing how human languages function in general. Just recall Chomsky and many others. Watch video lectures of PINKER on the internet. Comparing different languages shows how we think, how different people think, how languages molds the culture of the group of people who use that spacific language. And there is much more into this topic. Sit down and read a lot.

  6. So what is wrong with the word linguistician? Apart from the obvious…

    (I’ve just noticed reply #6 from Ivan, which sort of answers my question)

    Surely there must be other occupations or orientations where two somewhat different things are denoted by the same term. The nearest I can get is Pro Golfer/Golf Pro, which are two different things but easily confused by name.

  7. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve given up trying to teach people the difference…I just name the languages I’m learning and let them continue in their ignorance. Probably not the kindest thing to do, but it saves time…

  8. @Jayan: I do the same thing with that and many other topics, it’s just not worth the trouble, don’t blame you.

    Yup, you can be a very knowledgeable and accomplished linguist while never having learned any language other than your own. Although I do believe that Noam Chomsky does, in fact, speak an absurd number of languages.


  9. There is no point in trying to educate people who are persistent in being completely ignorant about language, just continue to ignore and enjoy life that is my philosophy.

  10. There are so many people now who profess to be able to speak a whole host of different languages, but this is not the case, they can only speak bits of each and not speak them fluently.

  11. It is such a massive advantage nowadays to be able to speak fluently in more than one language, plus jobs for interpreters are becoming more and more.

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