Monday, September 6, 2010

What is Linguistics, anyway?

My protagonist, Lauren Rousseau, is a Linguistics professor. We find out that she speaks Japanese and Bambara, a language spoken in Mali. We see her teaching a class on Japanese phonology and learn that she's writing a paper to present at the East Asian Linguistics conference. She seems pretty good at identifying regional and foreign dialects and accents, and in fact uses that to help solve the murder. She pops up with a smattering of greetings in languages like Russian and Greek.

But what is linguistics? It's a wide-ranging field with a number of sub-specialties. You can read about it here:

You don't have to know a bunch of languages to be a linguist, although many do. You could spend all your time theorizing about the underlying structure of language, or you could go out with a recorder to collect data about a language that has only two speakers left who learned it as their first language. You could trace back the history of words like 'apron', which was misanalyzed after it came into English from French . When people said, 'a napron' others heard it as 'an apron' and that's what stuck. Or you could track sound shifts that resulted a common Indo-European root for 'father' ending up beginning with a [p] sound in the Latinate languages and an [f] sound in the Germanic languages, of which English is one.

You could measure how many milliseconds an average vowel is in English when it precedes a voiced consonant like [d], [b], or [g] as opposed to when it precedes a voiceless consonant like [t], [p], or [k], and conversely the length of those consonants.

You could study psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, or typology of languages: is their basic word order Subject-Verb-Object, which the majority of languages use, or SOV, as in English, or VSO. You could study languages that use tone to mark meaning and grammatical function, like Hausa, Yoruba, and Chinese. Linguists also work in forensics, testifying in court about, for example, whether a written confession or a text message was in fact created by the accused.

Speaking of Murder
only touches on the possibilities of a linguist as an amateur sleuth. We're looking forward to seeing how else Lauren might use her skills to solve crimes in the future. One of my favorite blogs is linked to on this site: The bloggers are a number of well-known academic linguists who post about all kinds of topics of general interest. I recommend it.

What experiences do you have with linguistics? Any questions you've been dying to ask?


  1. What's the best language to say "my head is spinning"? I had no idea linguistics was so involved!

  2. I didn't even dent the surface. How parents speak to children in different cultures, and in different subcultures in the same language. How people who speak languages that don't have words for numbers express countability. The different areas in the brain that control verbal expression, comprehension, and writing. It goes on and on!
    Thanks for reading, Pat.

  3. The Wall Street Journal recently had a good article on some of this stuff, via a discussion of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis:

    Do the languages we speak shape the way we think? Do they merely express thoughts, or do the structures in languages (without our knowledge or consent) shape the very thoughts we wish to express?

    Take "Humpty Dumpty sat on a..." Even this snippet of a nursery rhyme reveals how much languages can differ from one another. In English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we say "sat" rather than "sit." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) change the verb to mark tense.

    In Russian, you would have to mark tense and also gender, changing the verb if Mrs. Dumpty did the sitting. You would also have to decide if the sitting event was completed or not. If our ovoid hero sat on the wall for the entire time he was meant to, it would be a different form of the verb than if, say, he had a great fall.

    In Turkish, you would have to include in the verb how you acquired this information. For example, if you saw the chubby fellow on the wall with your own eyes, you'd use one form of the verb, but if you had simply read or heard about it, you'd use a different form.

    Do English, Indonesian, Russian and Turkish speakers end up attending to, understanding, and remembering their experiences differently simply because they speak different languages?

    And it goes on from there...

  4. Forgot the URL for that!

  5. At the Natural History Museum in Santa Barbara, there's an exhibit that features recordings made on a wax cylinder. You can also hear this person's voice if you press a button. He was one of the last speakers to use the local Native American language. Did you read the book "Ishi"? It covers similar ground. Right down the road from this exhibit is the Old Mission, where many of the Native Americans from Santa Barbara were pressed into hard labor and converted. These are both museums, in a way, and they certainly have a lot to say with words and without.