Michael Clauss
Current research - Current teaching

Frequent comments, concerns, and questions, to which a linguist is subject
(aka "Things I hear too often")

Linguistics is, to a large extent, a poorly-understood field among the public. As native speakers of a language, people often feel at liberty to say anything about their own tongue, and as humans, feel equally at liberty to discuss anything about human linguistic behavior. This is clearest among those who place a high value on what they learned in English classes. Others, however, know enough to realize that language is a complicated beast, and thus are very curious about what we linguists do.

To that end, below is a list of things I frequently hear, either questions or claims, and what I feel are the most productive responses. I hope that this is a step, however small, towards some level of public understanding of just what the hell linguistics is.

"So you're a linguist? What are you going to do with that degree?"
There are a number of marketable skills one can get out of a PhD in linguistics, and a number of groups which hire people they call linguists. The number one group that comes to mind is the military, who hires "linguists" largely as translators of certain languages which the military might be interested in. While my knowledge of Urdu might be useful in this regard these days, I have very little interest in this application, and further don't particularly consider translation to be linguistics (see below).

The other, probably most profitable use of linguistics, would be as a programmer/computational linguist. But in my case I am not particularly qualified for this sort of thing. So to that end, I am probably going to continue to be an educator and researcher.

It is my opinion that linguists make pretty bad second-language teachers, but would make very good high school English teachers.

"So ok then, what exactly is linguistics and what is it good for?"
A very reasonable question. Linguistics is the scientific study of language. A linguist may study any of a number of different aspects of language - they may study the rules governing the structure of sentences and phrases (syntax), how words are formed (morphology), how linguistic form relates to meaning (semantics), sound patterns in languages (phonology), the physical attributes of human speech sounds (phonetics), how language is learned either by children or by second language students (acquisition), how the mind processes different types of linguistic input (psycholinguistics), the role language and society play in each other's structure (sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology respectively), how languages change over time and the form of languages no longer spoken (historical linguistics), or how artificial language learners can be constructed and how they understand human language (computational linguistics). One may study linguistics in the field, in a lab, or in an arm chair (though one may be judged harshly for this).

The linguist's goal is to learn everything we can about a human behavior which seems unique; to describe its form, its function, and its place and source in the mind. Through our attempts to do so, we have learned much about how the minds of children develop, what sort of choices people make in social communication, and how humans may or may not interact with non-humans. In short, linguists study what language is, what its limits are, and how closely the use of language is tied to being human

"How many languages do you speak?"
Linguistics isn't actually about speaking every language! This is the number one thing people assume about linguistics that isn't true. Since linguistics is the study of language in a general sense - what it means for something to be language, and how language functions and all of that - a linguist's work may make (specific) reference to just one language, a couple languages side by side, or a number of languages and common threads throughout them all. But, even someone who does this type of comparative work does not necessarily know how to speak any or all of the languages; it's not needed, as long as they have the help of a native speaker consultant, or a good reference grammar.

Personally, I speak English very well and Hindi-Urdu pretty ok. And that is plenty.

"People who splice commas/split infinitives use poor grammar"
Grammar is a bit of a hairy term. In its commonest usage, it usually means something like "rules of a language taught in a classroom environment which delineate optimal usage." In its technical usage, among linguists, it means more generally "a set of rules which govern the form of language." We might call this "mental grammar", since these rules are often subconscious. Within this understanding of the word, there is no such thing as "poor grammar"; All language-using humans use a grammar to shape their language, and all grammars share similar amounts of complexity, and observe similar sorts of constraints.

Linguists refer to the former definition as "prescriptive grammar" - the rules are prescribed by some authority, and understood as absolute, even though they may be freely violable in speech, and even in writing. Prescriptive rules, like the traditional injunction against splitting infinitives, are generally followed only in formal writing and speaking contexts. Further, they may be inserted or deleted from a given standard by fiat. An example of this is the use of different pronouns to refer to people of unknown gender: starting in the 18th century, the standard was to use 'he' if gender was unknown. This, however, was not standard before then, and has since fallen out of use in favor of, in the most formal settings, either an arbitrary choice of 'he' or 'she' or some combination there of ('he or she', 's/he', etc.), and in less formal settings simply with the older generic, 'they'. These changes are sudden and explicit, unlike natural changes to grammars, and often based on some standard of being "clearer" (see below; though there is a more complicated story for these generic pronouns).

Most linguists, rejecting the prescriptivist approach, often call themselves "descriptive linguists", in that our approach seeks to describe language use, and avoides prescribing it. The descriptive linguist simply observes and generalizes rules which seem to make up people's mental grammars, in hopes of making general conclusions about language, rather than wanting people's day-to-day usage to follow a standard imposed by some external, immobile force like an English teacher, or the prescriptivist's bible, Strunk and White's Elements of Style.

Written language, unlike spoken or signed language, is not an innate, universal human behavior, but a refined formalism, and it is necessarily taught (as opposed to being acquired as language is). As such, all rules of writing are necessarily prescriptive. Rules of orthography, such as proper punctuation, may reflect distinctions otherwise reflected in mental grammars, such as groupings illustrated by commas ("Noam Chomsky, the scholar and the teacher" versus "Noam Chomsky, the scholar, and the teacher"); however, they still do not reflect grammar in the linguistic sense, in that they are tools to express grammatical distinctions, rather than mental grammatical rules in and of themselves, and people probably have the relevant rules in their mental grammars, even if they are ignorant of the proper written representation of them. Similarly, one may have ready knowledge of the pronunciation, usage, and meaning of a word which they cannot properly spell. All of this seems to illustrate that written language standards are not part of the mental grammar which is of interest to linguists.

"We consider something ungrammatical if it is unclear or doesn't make sense"
When asked to describe why something is ungrammatical, people will often describe it as not making sense, or being "unclear". Our modern understanding of linguistics shows, however, that grammatical speech may indeed fail each of these tests quite as well as ungrammatical sentences. A grammatical sentence may be nonsensical if its meaning is undiscernable, despite following any relevant grammatical rules. The oldest example of this comes from Chomsky (1957): "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously". There is no obvious meaning to this sentence, but no deviation from the grammar in any sense (though Chomsky might have considered adding a comma between the two adjectives).

Sentences which are ungrammatical are often "unclear" because of their ungrammaticality. Take for example the sentence "The students made Amir look at each other". While one could dig out a meaning if they tried (Amir was made by each student to look at the other students), it is on its surface unclear who Amir is being made to look at, because the sentence violates rules of English syntax. Thus, the sentence's lack of clarity is part and parcel with its lack of grammaticality.

However, sentences may be completely grammatical and yet highly ambiguous. The sentence "Amir saw Sai with a telescope from Lucknow" has at least four meanings (Amir was in Lucknow using a telescope, Amir used a telescope that was from Lucknow, Amir was in Lucknow and saw Sai (somewhere else) holding a telescope, or Amir saw that Sai had a telescope from Lucknow), each of which is grammatical. So you can see, lack of clarity is in fact no standard for grammaticality.

"These people speak a dialect, not a language."
Often, people talking about foreign languages (especially if they are minority languages - languages spoken by a smaller subset of a population, and not given government representation) will refer to a variety as a "dialect". To the extent that linguists use "dialect" to mean anything at all, we typically mean that speakers of that variety can mostly be understood by and can understand speakers of another variety (what we call mutual intelligibility, though even this standard is not without its issues). On the other hand, non-linguists often seem to mean that one of the varities is somehow less-languagey than the other, or is a corruption of the other.

This point of view is antithetical to what we know about language, as discussed above. It is only by an imbalance of power and prestige that one variety seems more legitimate than another; all varities, even if they are mutually intelligible with another variety, are equally complex, equally grammatical, and equally languages.

"Those people speak with an accent"
Indeed they do! But here's the trick: so do you! When one hears speech that is different from theirs, especially phonologically/phonetically, one tends to use the label "accent" to describe it, in order to say "that person's speech deviates from the norm!" (with the usual implication of "and mine doesn't!"). But, as has been thoroughly discussed here, "the norm" is kind of an illusion. Every person's speech reflects their social standing to some point, and everyone's speech is a little bit different from the elusive "norm". An "accent" is nothing more than an easily identifiable form of this variation.

"Ok, I want to learn about linguistics. What should I read, beyond this informative page?"
Sadly I am asked this all too seldom. But, I'll answer it just in case. Three good intros to the history and basic concepts of linguistics are:

The Language Instinct by Stephen Pinker
Patterns in the Mind by Ray Jackendoff
Introducing Linguistics by R. L. Trask

Reading a good, foundational theory book like Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Chomsky 1965) could also be of interest, though it is a very brave undertaking.

Email me! mclauss+AT+linguist.umass.edu
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