Linguistics, Literature, and the Louvre

If someone hears that you are a linguist there are a few standard responses. The most common is, “How many languages do you speak?” This requires many of us to launch into an explanation of the difference between linguists and translators, and how one can still do scientific research as a monoglot. Fortunately no one ever comes back with the obvious next question: “So are you too lazy to learn a foreign language?” for which the answer is “Yes”. Or people might say, “I’d better watch what I say around you,” believing that linguists are professional grammar sticklers prepared to leap down their throat at the first sign of a dangling participle. This is kind of true, but in the opposite way. It is likely that a linguist is paying close attention to the way you talk. And we are on the lookout for the stuff that’s quirky, atypical or, strictly speaking, wrong, but this is in order to praise, not chide. We love regional accents and slang. And this isn’t just an aesthetic preference, but comes from the heart of what we do.

(The third most common response is, “So you must be very cunning, eh?” which, like, memo from all linguists to the people of planet Earth: we’ve heard that joke.)

Linguists pay attention to the way you talk when you’re not paying attention to the way you talk. We tune out when your try to impress us with your eloquence, but our ears prick up for everyday utterances like “Fries with that?”, “Did you see where I put my keys?”, and “There’s a lot of them badgers around here anymore”. It’s not that we have anything against eloquence, or beautiful language, or standards in general, but it’s beyond our purview. Linguistics strives to be an objective science, while aesthetic and normative judgements are inherently subjective. For example, I may find Thomas Pynchon’s prose transcendent while you find it show-offy and dull. It’s not like one of us is right. The possibility of such disagreements is part of what makes this an aesthetic question. On the other hand, native English speakers do not prepend the determiner “a” or “the” to every singular noun phrase because we find it to be a charming bit of ornamentation. We do it because, well, we don’t even think about it. That’s just what you do. And when your Russian friend consistently forgets to say “the” she is speaking English incorrectly, even though you understand perfectly well what she means and maybe even find her accent beautiful. Aesthetic and grammatical judgements are both judgements, but that’s where the similarity ends. To apply the criteria or mechanics of one to the other is a category error.

Say you were traveling to France and really wanted to experience the place. What would you do? Maybe you’d take a tour of the country’s treasures. You’d visit the Eiffel Tower and Mont St. Michelle, spend days prowling the Georges Pompidou and the Louvre, immersing yourself in all the best and most distinctive elements of French culture. Alternately, you could arrange to take an office job in a medium-sized city for a year, and spend your days riding the bus, going to the supermarket, and watching TV. Once you had burned through the culture shock and language barrier to the point where you found your new French life to be just as unremarkable as your old American one you could say with confidence that you had truly experienced France. Linguists take the latter route. We leave Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot for the tourists. We’ll be riding the metro and watching Eurovision with the slobs, because that is where we’ll see human beings in their most unguarded moments.

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2 Responses to Linguistics, Literature, and the Louvre

  1. Renee says:

    Scott would complain about the first thing too and I would point out, “Yeah, but all of you guys actually *do* speak more than one language.” So I think it’s still a reasonable question.

    And the Louvre is overrated anyway.

    • W.P. McNeill says:

      It is a reasonable question, but I personally really cannot speak more than one language. I am able to rattle off some simple sentences in Spanish and stand there with a confident look on my face even when I don’t understand the reply, but as Noam Chomsky will tell you, the human language capacity is separate from the human capacity for bluffing.

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