Phrenology != Phonology

This is not linguistics. It is, however, pretty cool. Photo taken by Flickr user Uncle Catherine, and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Linguistics is a huge field. It includes everything from the algorithms behind Siri to preserving endangered languages like flies in amber to reconstructing dead languages. (Unlike biologists, we don’t have to worry about an undead T-Rex wandering around if things go terribly, terribly wrong.) Since it’s just one intrepid girl linguist here at Making Noise and Hearing Things, I’m going to have to restrict myself to just a single set of sub-disciplines. These are:

      • Psycholinguistics: Like a zombie valiantly  trying to overcome his crippling aphasia, psycholinguistics all about language and brains. Since I’m all about sound, you’ll probably be getting a lot of stuff about brains and sound.
      • Phonology: Often confused with  phrenology (no, seriously, this happens to me all the time) it’s the study of the systems of rules languages apply to their sounds. Here’s a quick example: say “dogs” and “cats”. Is the “s” on the end of both of those words the same? Try saying it again with your hand right above your Adam’s apple or where your Adam’s apple would be. When you say the “s” on “dogs” you should feel a slight buzzing, like you’ve swallowed a bee. The “s” on “cats”, though, doesn’t have it. Whether or not the final “s” has buzzing in it (linguists call it “voicing”) is determined by a simple rule in English: you get vibration on the final “s” if the sound before it had it. The “g” sound in “dog” has vibration; the “t” sound in “cat” doesn’t.
      • Phonetics: This is the study of sounds themselves. Phonology is all like, “Oh, yeah, that was voicing.” Phonetics is all like, “Sure, but how much voicing? How long did it last? How much air came out?” Phonetics wants to know all the dirty details. Phonetics takes videos like this one, where you can see the vocal folds vibrating in slow motion. [[WARNING: If you are prone to nightmares of terrors from beyond space, you might want to skip this one. Just saying.]]

But, yeah, those are the biggies. I can’t promise I won’t be branching out from these sub-disciplines, but I can promise an extremely low frequency of syntax posts. (Low frequency! Get it? Because… sound… um. Never mind.)

You Are a Linguist

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:

  1. Makes claims about language
  2. 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.