Thursday, October 8, 2009

I am a linguistics major

I am a linguistics major. This is a relatively new discipline, which, despite being one of the oldest studies ever (shout out to Panini) has only come into its own since the 1950s when people like Noam Chomsky really started formulating theories. Of course, back in the old days, everyone and their brother was a linguist in their spare time, including Jakob Grimm, one of the brothers thereof.
Because linguistics as something one studies at college is a relatively recent development, when linguistics majors go out into the world and get asked what their major is, the response they invariably receive is something like, "So, how many languages do you speak?"
Just for the record, I barely speak English. Now, languages I've studied - Spanish, Russian, Coptic, Nepali... the list gets bigger when you count 'languages I had problem sets about'. But that's not the point. Linguistics isn't really about speaking languages - what we would call 'competency'. That often helps, because linguistics is really about how languages work, and seeing how as many of them work as you can gives you a sense of what's out there. But your average linguist is not the most competent polyglot. Most linguists have a specialty, a particular interest in an aspect of language, or of one particular language, or in one or two theories, and this is what they focus most their time on. This could be something like the syntax of Malagasy, like the chair of my school's department, or how we say things without saying them ('pragmatics'), or how language changes over time, or even things like dialects, like Scots English or African-American Vernacular English. As you can imagine, there is a great deal of subjects which linguists address before you even get out of English.
Being an undergraduate linguistics major means that you spend a lot of your time making weird noises as you pronounce items from the International Phonetic Alphabet and being unable to have a full normal conversation when someone says something that is syntactically or semantically fascinating ('wrong' is also fascinating). You are also a huge target for criticism from psychology majors, who are just above the Science pecking order from you. You will counter that you do empirical studies with repeatable results, but it will not matter, because everyone you meet is an expert on language. But that's okay, because you can make really neat trees, and talk about the Sapir-Whorf theory.
Linguistics majors are misunderstood, although I will admit that lurking around the library making hissing and clicking noises is pretty creepy. But most linguistics majors I know, myself included, are genuinely entranced by the nuances and complexities of language, and quite capable of keeping themselves very happy without anyone else's approval. Linguistics majors are prone to bursting into excited tangents when they find something new, and because language is all around us, we are always finding something new. It makes for an exciting life of the mind.
That, and at least we're not sociologists.

1 comment:

  1. Haha I like your observations! Keep the posts going :-)
    "You are also a huge target for criticism from psychology majors, who are just above the Science pecking order from you."