Who is/isn't a linguist?

Diane Lesley-Neuman d.f.lesley-neuman at umail.leidenuniv.nl
Fri Sep 30 10:48:33 UTC 2011

One of the reasons I have gone into language description/literacy development
alongside of other scientific pursuits, is that it is a true application of
linguistic knowledge in service to a language community.  I do not wish to
simply be a documenter who goes from community to community documenting
languages. I prefer to dedicate myself to a group of languages with shared
characteristics and shared histories, and lend a hand where needed--while
getting a lot of marvelous data I can also do theoretical and instrumental work
on.  If this means that at different times I may be working as an English
teacher in a nearby school/university while I do it and elicit through a
dominant, encroaching language--so be it.  In the end, I am doing analytical
work on languages, while learning and using multiple languages--which fits the
definition of linguist in my book.  In the course of my professional practice
and training, I have to work on and in my native English, and my acquired
languages Spanish and Swahili, in addition to learning as I can the languages
that are objects of study, be they Quechua, Marathi, Sundanese
Wolof,Kinyarwanda,  Thai, Turkana, Karimojong, Datooga, DhoLuo, Ciyao. I now
need to study Dutch to get along where I am living, as well as brush up on my
German and French to read professional literature.  All of this language work
keeps me very busy. I do not take kindly to someone telling me I am not a
linguist, given that work in/on language some 16-18 hours per day.

I also notice that the term "linguist" is applied by laypeople to those who
study and speak many languages.  I think that the inclusive term may be the
most accurate.

There are certain groups who seek to restrict membership in the field to those
who subscribe to and practice a certain brand of linguistic theory.  This
attitude impoverishes the field of possibilities. Had I followed what I had
been told by such individuals, professors of linguistics all, I would never
have become one. Some of them still probably believe that I am not a linguist

My linguistics articles are passing peer review and my professors in Europe
believe that I am a linguist. I come into the lab, make recordings and corpora,
read historical linguistics, delve into grammars and articles and argue for my
model of word order change, of the phonology-morphology interface, etc.

Over the triple-whammy discrimination of age-sex-social class,which is probably
the key determinants of the negative judgments of my first professors, have I
now made it?

Diane F. Lesley-Neuman
c/o Phonetics Laboratory
Leiden University
Cleveringaplaats 1
Room 111
2311 BD Leiden
The Netherlands

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