Unless you have a degree in linguistics or are working as a translator (not the same thing, but I’ll get to that later) you probably read the title of this post and immediately thought “No, I’m not.” Trust me, you are. How do I know? Well, a linguist is someone who does two things:
- Makes claims about language
- Attempts to either verify or disprove these claims (whether they made them or someone else did).
That’s it. There’s no secret cabal of linguists you have to join, you don’t have to speak thirty languages, and you certainly don’t have to have a PhD. I think if you start paying attention, you’ll notice that you do this all the time. Have you ever had a conversation like this?
Lulu: She talks slow.
Max: Really? I’ve never noticed it.
Or maybe one like this:
Lulu: We go to the zoo.
Max: Don’t you mean we’re going to the zoo?
Lulu: No, we go to the zoo all the time.
Max: But we’re going today, so you could have said that “we’re going”.
Lulu: Yeah, but that’s not what I meant.
Bam. You’re a linguist; go you! “But wait a minute,” you say, “I know for a fact that translators are called linguists. Are you saying that just speaking another language doesn’t make you a linguist? Because that’s what I’ve always heard.”
Man, you’ve got the linguistics bug bad. Look at you, bringing up fine semantic distinctions! (Semantics is the study of how words map onto meaning, BTW.) And you’re absolutely right, a linguist can also be someone who speaks more than one language. The Oxford English Dictionary, the most complete record of the English language, defines a linguist as, first:
“One who is skilled in the use of languages; one who is master of other tongues besides his own. (Often with adj. indicating the degree or extent of the person’s skill.)”
And only later as:
“A student of language; a philologist.”
Philology is what the very beginnings of the modern study of language were called. These days, most people prefer the term “linguistics”, and only use philology for a certain field of study within linguistics. For the purposes of this blog and most academic settings, a linguist is not someone who knows languages, but someone who knows about languages. And since knowing a language also automatically means you know about a language–if you’re a native English speaker, you can easily identify where people are from based on their accent, for example–you, sir or madam or other, are a linguist.