Being a Linguist

“So are you doing your linguist thing as I’m talking?”

It’s a pretty well-known phenomenon that when you first start telling people that you’re a linguist, most people ask what languages you’re studying. Although not an unreasonable question, since many linguists DO study several languages, one of my professors likes to say that we study language with a capital L, meaning how language works as a concept.

When I met my first linguist, I had a slightly different reaction. I began to become very conscious of my grammar. And my inner monologue went something like this:

“oh my god, she’s listening to everything I’m saying and how I’m saying it.”

“She’s judging how I talk…wait…did I just use that word correctly? I don’t know! Oh great, now she thinks I’m an idiot…”

And so on and so forth.

Since that was MY first reaction, I’ve begun anticipating that others might be wondering the same thing. And so today’s post is about putting that fear to rest.

1.  Linguists are generally interested in descriptive language use, rather than prescriptive language use.

What does that mean? To quote a pretty popular slideshow (at least among my linguist friends), we are “language hippies.” We’re more interested in looking at how people actually DO speak, rather than telling them how they SHOULD speak.

So no, we are not all grammar freaks.

2. It is REALLY difficult to study a person’s speech while you’re engaged in conversation with that person. 

Conversations are hard work, and require a lot of attention to keep up with what people are trying to tell you. Asking someone to pay attention to specific things like pronoun use or intonation patterns while you’re also trying to converse with them would be like trying to count cracks in the sidewalk while you’re biking over them AND listening to a lecture that you KNOW will be included on the test. You’re gonna miss something, somewhere. This is one of the reasons why we love recordings. Sometimes patterns are only obvious after listening to them 5, 10, 50 times, or spread out over several minutes, days, or even people.

Now, this isn’t to say that we don’t occasionally notice things, but linguists are trained to listen differently, and to be aware of what these different choices might mean. But most of the time, we’re just enjoying talking with you.

3. This might just be me, but if we ARE listening to anyone while engaged in conversation, it’s probably ourselves. 

It’s the classic “don’t think of a white elephant” command. If you start talking about body language, it’s very easy to become aware of how you’re standing or moving. And then you can’t NOT think about it.

So I hope this helps all of my friends out there, who I’m sure at one time or another have wondered if I’m silently judging them because of how they speak. I promise you, I’m not. But I AM wondering if I should put my hands in my pockets…or just let them hang…or maybe on my hips…or…



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