Who is/isn't a linguist?

Sherman Wilcox wilcox at unm.edu
Thu Sep 29 15:54:23 UTC 2011

On Sep 29, 2011, at 3:38 AM, Daniel Everett wrote:

> So I think it is vital that we think about what it means to be a linguist in light of the employment problem.

Dan, I really appreciated your comments.

For the past 25+ years I've taught mostly undergraduate students in our signed language interpreting program, with the occasional graduate seminar in linguistics thrown in to make me feel like a "real" linguist. One of my colleagues used to say that the interpreting program was really a "clinical" or applied program and as such not truly appropriate for a College of Arts and Sciences. I used to bristle at that sentiment. The older I get, though, the more I take pride in being identified as working in an applied area, even though at heart my own interests are (and always have been) entirely theoretical (I'm not saying I'm very good at it, just that those ideas and questions are what tickle my brain).

Next week I have to give a presentation to our Board of Regents (apparently each month they invite a faculty member to discuss his/her teaching and research so they can learn what we do -- a pretty good idea, since many of them seem to have not a clue what faculty do). I've been told to tell them about our impact on the community; accordingly, one of my slides is labeled simply "JOBS" (not just for our interpreter graduates, but for the deaf people in the community they will serve while in school, in job interviews, on the job, buying cars, etc.).

But I'll also be emphasizing that an important part of what I, we, do is to discover new knowledge, explore new ideas, whether or not we see immediate application. I watch many of our interpreting students grimace when I talk about "theoretical" concepts -- they got attracted to the field, for the most part, not because they wanted to study linguistics and learn about whether ASL does or does not have passive constructions, but because they wanted to *do* something with that language, help people. They soon see, though, that even this boring (to them) "theoretical stuff" has direct application to how they'll do their jobs (what do you do when someone says and you have to sign, "Mistakes were made"?). And, of course, some of them get sucked into linguistics entirely.

Our local two-year community college has a TV commercial that emphasizes their goal of preparing students for a job, a trade. It ends with "Education that matters!" I want to scream every time I hear that commercial: ALL EDUCATION MATTERS. I hope we linguists don't buy into the false dichotomy of thinking we either do theory or we do practice. 

Sherman Wilcox
Department of Linguistics
University of New Mexico

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