So you do linguistics?
Indeed, I do.
The study of language.
Oh, how many languages do you speak? I bet you’re cringing at everything I’m saying wrong right now. Do you work for like the CIA? Say something in–
Ok, lemme stop you right there.
I’m a linguist, BUT I don’t know all the languages. There’s like 6 or 7 thousand of them. I have more of a prepositional or relative relationship with most of them. I know of some, I know about some, I know who to ask about them, where to find information.
But, how many do you speak though?
Give me a transcript in IPA and I’ll speak whatever language you want!
Ok, fine. I can only really say I speak English and Spanish. I’m also learning a few sign languages at the moment, and I’ve taken classes for a few more spoken languages. What I’m really interested in is how they work. Whether or not I can get my brain to wrap its little neurons around that and tell my head and hands what to do with the information in order to be understood is another issue entirely.
What do you mean how they work? Like proper grammar? Verb conjugation?
Those things are part of it, yes. It’s more than just proper grammar. I’m more interested in what people actually say or sign naturally, not rules that have to be taught in school.
So you’re not judging my grammar?
I’m a linguist, BUT I’m not judging your grammar. I really enjoy things like split infinitives and sentence-final prepositions and “me” in place of “I”. They show the flexibility of English and where it’s headed. I do often notice and sometimes get distracted by how someone says something, but most of the time I just think it’s interesting. I may be able to tell something about you, like where you’re from, or I might make a mental note to look into a structure or pronunciation I’ve never noticed before.
I’m not sure if that makes me feel better.
Then let me distract you with some more on what I actually do. One of the things I focus on is language description, which essentially means I take examples of a language being used and try to organize it into neat little components and rules. It’s like learning the rules of game by watching it being played.
Can’t the players just explain it to you? Isn’t that what foreign language classes are for?
Even for languages that are taught in classes, someone had to go write down all the rules at some point. Native users can be very helpful, but there are also a lot of things that they do instinctively without really being able to explain it. Can you give me a list of all the sounds in English and tell me the rules for combining them? Can you tell me why “a fat blue big book” sounds terrible?
I guess I never really thought about it.
Exactly. Native users have great instincts about what is and isn’t allowed, but they can’t always pinpoint why. Since I don’t study English, I’ve sometimes been asked questions by learners that I can’t answer immediately either. Linguists also study aspects that aren’t really covered in language classes. We look for how languages change over time, how they influence each other, and what groups of languages or all languages have in common. I like to say linguistics is all about organizing information and recognizing patterns, but it’s also about how complicated, messy, and beautiful human minds are.
Well, on that inspiring note…
Ok, I’ll stop rambling about one of the most fascinating aspects of human life. For now.