Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Popular (Mis)conceptions of Linguistics?

Hm. Interesting:
Since I created "Google Alerts" for the collocations "Language Evolution", "Evolution of Language" and "Origins of Language", sometimes I'm hitting on very interesting posts (though most times it's either about that new Coppola Movie or general complaints about or reflections on the introduction of new words or slang terms into public discourse). Today I found a link to the real estate/ michael a. caruso weblog, which seems to be your average personal journal. However, what sparked my interest was a short post on "The Origins of Language", where you can find the following:

"While linguists have looked for clues since long ago of how language works,
scientists take a different approach."

Does this represent a general public conception of linguists as not being scientists, or as not doing anything scientific at all?

As someone studying linguistics I find this quite frustrating. But also as a native of Germany I find this confusing, as in German there are to term for "Linguistics" which basically mean the same thing, namely "Linguistik" (linguistics) and "Sprachwissenschaft" (Language Science/ The Science of Language).

But probably this is a topic for the Language Log


Vernon Lynn Stephens, MSSW said...


Your observation is germane. I know that linguistics is a science-- part of social science and thus a part of general science. I think the web-log entry to which you refer gets into the semantic domain of "literature" language-study, which in the USA is considered to be much-more-like-art than science. This usage is a malapropism, but I think it might be a common mis-use in these United States of Amnesia (USA.) We are known to be an under-informed, ill-trained country, and such utterance may reflect this dearth/lapse.

--Vernon Lynn Stephens, MSSW
2p EST/USA-- 2/12/2008

Michael said...


Thanks for your interesting comments.
I guess it's a rather difficult issue to define which branch of scientific inquiry linguistics belong to. Of course, thing like sociolinguistics are evry much part of social sciences, whereas others (such as psycholinguistics, language acquistion studies, cognitive linguistics) clearly belong tot he realm of cognitive science. Even my linguistics professor and I have different cocneptions of what counts as relavant data regarding linguistic phenomena (And, alas, he has the last word on what I can write my term paper about-)
I'm not sure whether this misconception of linguistics is only typical for America. I guess the average German (or Europoean in general) knows just as little about what a linguist really does for a living (but, hey, I don't even know if i know that)