Who are Linguists?

Linguists are no different from any other people who spend more than nineteen hours a day pondering the complexities of grammar and its relationship to practically everything else in order to prove that language is so inordinately complicated that it is impossible in principle for people to talk.

(Ronald W. Langacker 1973)

Linguists have an interest in understanding the way that language works, either a particular language or language in general. Linguists notice small details and discrepancies in the patterns of a language. For example, in (standard) English, the paradigm for reflexive pronouns is in the left column, for possessive pronouns in the middle column, and for object pronouns in the right column.

myself my me
yourself your you
himself his him
herself her her
itself its it
ourselves our us
yourselves your you
themselves their them

A linguist might notice that when you take away the "self/selves" from the first column, you end up with the possessive pronoun for first (I, we) and second person (you), but you end up with the object pronoun for third person (he, she, it, they). It's not completely clear for "herself" since the possessive and object pronouns look alike. There are some non-standard dialects of English which use "hisself" and "theirselves" instead of "himself" and "themselves." These dialects thus use a more regular pattern. Most people never notice small details like this, but for linguists, such patterns require explanation.

Many linguists start out as something else - maybe French teachers or mathematicians or scientists. They move on to study linguistics because they like the patterns in language. They often like puzzles too. If you think you might enjoy being a linguist, you might also enjoy these puzzles.

Few linguists study all the branches of linguistics in depth. Many linguists focus on one of the branches of linguistics (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, discourse, semantics, pragmatics, etc.). Other linguists focus on a particular language or language family that interests them. Still other linguists focus on a particular language-related product or service, such as developing orthographies, developing dictionaries, writing grammars or teaching a language to speakers of another language. This last group is sometimes refered to as applied linguistics.

These are just some of the many types of linguists. The main thing to note is that linguistics is fun! It covers all sorts of areas of discovery...language, science, puzzles, history, mathematical patterns, quirky things that don't fit, musical pitches and sound waves, relating to language groups, travel, sociology, psychology, writing systems, programming... in fact, most areas of discovery are related in some way to linguistics. Our language is so much a part of us and who we are. It is a privilege to be able to spend time investigating the patterns in what we and others say and hear, and to discover so much in the process.

For information about studying linguistics with SIL, see here.