What is Linguistics?
Linguistics is the scientific study of language, but that doesn’t begin to convey why it is that so many of us are so passionate about it or why we see so many professional applications.
Our answer to “what is linguistics?” is a poem:
Every linguistic choice carries meaning precisely because to say anything at all means NOT saying a variety of other things. Thus, when a linguist listens, they hear:
what was said
what you could have said but didn’t
Linguists are always paying attention to all the above simultaneously. What is said carries social meaning precisely because it was said instead of everything that wasn’t, or couldn’t or shouldn’t be said. The implication here is in what the choice reveals about the speaker, the hearer, their relationship, the context, etc. Let’s say for example I want to refer to “Canada.” There are many ways that I might refer to “the great white north” for example: “our closest neighbor” or “”our ally in trading” or as “my homeland” because I was born in Toronto. Each of these choices reveals something slightly different about things that I care about, and where I am, where I have been, and how this shapes my engagement with and understanding of the world and the people in it. I can playfully refer to Canada as “Canadia,” or I can say the “home of Tim Hortons” or even “the land of Justin Trudeau” to take an opportunity to express my knowledge of or to convey affinity for things Canadian, including recent events such as the election of a new prime minister.
The point is that we are all constantly making choices when we speak. Some of them are conscious, many of them are not, but these choices are an important way that we construct and convey our identities, and how we relate to others. We know for example that we change our language developing on the occasion, we might need to “dress up” our language if we are trying to speak with a VIP or that that we might need to provide much more background about an inside joke if there is someone new to the group.
Thus, when linguists provide an analysis, it is helping to reveal what is by paying attention to what isn’t. Reflecting on all of these whats (what could have been said) as a point of entry into thinking about language is only the beginning. There is often who, when, where, why, and of course more of the how to be considered in fully understanding language as a tool. Certainly, it is about communication, but language is also about constructing meaning (power, influence etc.), and it is this “way of seeing” that informs everything that that linguists do. Therefore, I would say linguistics is a way of understanding how language functions as a tool.
Here at Career Linguist, I am particularly interested in how it is that linguists can apply our “ways of seeing” in professional contexts, in other words, to bring this tool to work, which I why I love this definition of linguistics from the UC Santa Cruz department of Lx homepage: Because of the centrality of language in human interaction and behavior, the knowledge gained through the study of linguistics has many practical consequences and uses.
Graduates of undergraduate and graduate programs in Linguistics apply their training in many diverse areas, including language pedagogy, speech pathology, speech synthesis, natural language interfaces, search engines, machine translation, forensics, naming, and of course all forms of writing, editing, and publishing. Perhaps the most widely appreciated application was contributed by UCSC Linguistics alumnus Marc Okrand, who invented the Klingon language for Star Trek.
To learn more about linguistics, see:
The University of Arizona’s (Bear Down) Resource Page: What is linguistics and why study it?
The Linguistics Society of America’s What is Linguistics? page
These Great Linguistics Blogs:
What skills are cultivated by studying linguistics?
So, what skills do we linguists have?
There are many skills that the study of linguistics cultivates, and the irony is that the longer you have been doing linguistics, the more natural each of these starts to become, and therefore, less visible. Further, in the educational context, we can take our skills for granted because we are surrounded by people who share them, but the truth is that out there in the work world, a linguist’s way of listening is as rare as it is valuable.
We expect misunderstanding
In courses like Cross-Cultural Communication, we focus in on moments of miscommunication and misunderstanding, and not because we believe communication to be impossible, but instead to celebrate what an interactional achievement smooth communication is. Adopting a stance of expecting misunderstanding informs our way of looking at interaction and our interactional behavior in many important ways. First, it gives us a bit of critical distance from our language when we understand that miscommunication is not personal, it is not because we are ineffectual or owing to willful lack of effort or cooperation on the part of the other party. This knowledge makes us value communication. We know that it takes work to communicate, and we have patience for this work.
Additionally, we know how to talk about communication, so that when miscommunication does occur, not only are we more likely to recognize it, but we also know how to diagnose it, talk about it, and unpack it to arrive at a deeper understanding of it. We rush in where others may fear to tread! Expecting misunderstanding at the outset will lead you to work towards understanding (to invest in it). We cultivate a certain comfort with misunderstanding which can help us get people through conflict, which is a rare skill indeed!
We are precise in our terminology
I am often accused of “being a linguist” in moments where I insist on clarity and precision in word choice, for example, questioning a characterization of something as “normal” or cuing into language that is particularly “othering” or unnecessarily alienating, in the style of “us” vs. “them”. Such awareness may prevent miscommunication and it is also quite powerful because it helps me strive for clarity and precision and in turn push others to clarify their thinking and their writing.
We are not afraid of questions
In many workplace settings, questions are unconsciously avoided for many reasons. Questions are often seen as being the enemy to efficiency because they introduce complexity, they introduce ambiguity, but life is complex and ambiguous. Only by asking questions do we arrive at a closer understanding of the truth.
- And so, we ask “What does X mean?”
- And we ask “Why?
This exemplification of critical thinking is an application of our training. We can complexify because we are not overwhelmed by ambiguities and myriad interpretations, and because we are also trained in synthesis, analysis, and meaning-making
We think in systems
Training in linguistics is training in making meaning, which enables us in any context to be better at systems thinking and to recognize overarching themes. We are trained to find patterns in chaos and to make the invisible visible. Some people describe this as connecting the dots, systems thinking, or making models, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that most people are too busy being in the pattern to see the pattern, much less change it. We can help!
We lead with listening
Because we look at communication with an eye to improving understanding and improving relationships, we listen for what people really care about. We can take on the perspective of the other person in an interaction and we know how to peel back to get at underlying assumptions. Additionally, because we are trained for listening to the nuances of the ways that people talk, we can use our listening to help us talk in ways that mirror and resemble those of the people we are talking to, which enables us to better hear and be heard. This skill builds rapport. Finally, we pick up on things. We are sharp observers, and this skill is marketable in any context!
Share your thoughts with us
If you want to share your thoughts about linguistics or have questions about linguistics, contact us.