Who is/isn't a linguist?

carey benom busylinguist at gmail.com
Wed Sep 28 23:21:50 UTC 2011

Interesting question, Shannon.

I sometimes think that all human beings who speak/sign a language are
linguists, as they have had to go through the process of - beginning with no
background - collecting and analyzing vast amounts of data, creating
categories, testing and revising hypotheses, forming conclusions, etc. in
order to create a grammar of a language from the ground up.

Such a process could be argued to be distinct from the "scientific" analysis
of language, as it is based on "folk" or naive understanding, but I am not
sure that such a binary distinction is the right or only way to see things.
For example, some card-carrying linguists use only qualitative
methodologies, and linguists who use quantitative methods may consider their
work "unscientific".  Other linguists, such as Chomsky, use
intuition-derived data that seems very suspect to many people on this list,
who may refer to it is "bad science" or "unscientific".

Therefore, in my classes, I sometimes refer to language-using humans who
don't have a background in linguistics in school (or elsewhere) as "poor
linguists", as they lack the tools, range of experience, and perspective of
those of us with such a background.


Carey Benom
Kyushu University

On Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 6:56 AM, s.t. bischoff <bischoff.st at gmail.com>wrote:

> Hello all,
> I've been covering "linguistic relativity" with students in a current
> course
> I am teaching. When ever I cover this topic I must pause and wonder at  the
> claim often found that "Whorf was an amateur", something students often
> notice as well. I pause because I wonder what or who determines when
> someone
> is or is not a linguist. As we all know Whorf published a good number of
> papers in respected journals, taught courses at Yale, and so on. Yet, it is
> not uncommon to find reference to him as an amateur, that is, not a "real"
> linguist. Yet, Boas, who had no formal training in linguistics is one of,
> if
> not the, most important "linguistics" of the 20th century and is regarded
> as
> such. In addition, Chomksy (and Dr. Newmeyer I hope you will correct me
> here
> if I am wrong), has really seemed to have no interest what so ever in
> language other than as a "phenomena" of study, the result of the mind/brain
> (the real object of study) that allows him to pursue a theory of mind. In
> his own words *The phenomena that scientists work with cannot be identified
> with the nature of the object they are investigating (personal
> communication): in this case the object of study is NOT language but the
> mind/brain (if I am understanding correctly). In short, Chomsky seems to
> have used language to pursue a theory of mind, not "linguistics"...yet he
> is
> often cited as a "linguist" on par with, if not exceeding, Boas...certainly
> his influence has had similar effect.  I am inclined to believe this is in
> great part politics, fashion, and image (of the field)...but I wonder if
> anyone else might have insights into this issue...as it is one that
> students
> find quite intriguing...which lends itself to bringing them into the field.
> Cheers,
> Shannon
> *

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