Oh, you study linguistics? How many languages do you speak? Will you hate me if I use the wrong ‘their’? Why do people speak wrong all the time? For linguists, these kinds of questions are amazingly common. If you are someone who has asked these questions of your linguist buddies in the past, this guide will set you right.
Linguistics is the study of languages. This goes all the way from identifying the sounds of a language to making policies about language use. The discipline goes from forensic science to anthropology, from statistical models to data gathering in the field. There’s a big diversity within the discipline!
As you can imagine, any one linguist doesn’t study all of these things. Rather, they specialise their work in a particular area. Thus you have linguists who make dictionaries of endangered languages in the jungles of New Guinea, linguists who make plans for teaching foreign languages in schools and linguists who program computers to be able to recognise human speech.
If you’ve ever opened a dictionary, used spell-check on your computer or tried to learn a new language, then you can be sure that a linguist was involved in making that possible at some stage of the process. Language is an unshakeable part of our lives, helping us define our identities and helping us to think and formulate thoughts. It’s one of the first things that we learn as babies and we do so incredibly fast and efficiently.
Because language is such a fundamental part of who we are, understanding how it works and all the information that it contains can help us understand a whole lot of other things too. For example, reconstructing languages as they existed in the past can tell us about when different speaker populations were in contact, or deciphering ancient writings can tell us about the history and culture of a place. Most people know about the Rosetta stone, an ancient stone engraved with the same text in three different languages: Ancient Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs and Demotic. This stone, made by Ptolemy V around 200 BC, allowed us not only to understand the hieroglyphic language of Ancient Egypt, but also to understand the culture, history and people of that empire.
Dictionaries too are part of the wide realm of linguistics. While often taken for granted, dictionaries are hugely complicated to put together and update. They are often treated as the repository of The Words of The English Language, but they hold a much more nuanced and interesting position. Lexicographers, people who make dictionaries, are constantly playing catch-up; always trying to document the language as it currently is while it is constantly changing. The truth is that the dictionary is like all other products about language: a picture of a particular time, unchanging while the world around it moves on.
Languages are the basis of all of our interactions and thoughts. Worldwide, we speak over 6000 distinct languages, with many more dialects and regional varieties. So few of these languages are documented that as language die out, huge amounts of acquired knowledge is being lost. Understanding how languages work, who uses them, why they can be useful to us and what we can do with them is a big task, but there is a big discipline out there taking it on.