What is Linguistics Good For, Anyway?
An Advice Column by Jonathan “Crazy Ivan” van der Meer
The most commonly asked question of a linguist, when one’s secret is revealed, is (all together now!): “How many languages do you speak?” I’ve decided that a good answer to this question is π. More than three, less than four—though if you discover that your interlocutor is singularly unsophisticated or otherwise from Kansas, you can call it three to keep things simple.
A less commonly asked, but almost certainly as frequently considered questions is, “So, what is linguistics good for, anyway?” That one is harder to answer—at least if you don’t want the questioner’s eyes to glaze over. Sure, you can blather on about the yin and yang of the diametrically opposed intellectual challenges presented by fieldwork and theoretical syntax, and how linguistics is “potentially the most cognitive of the cognitive sciences,” or how comp ling synthesizes the best of both the humanities and the sciences while potentially rewriting the book on how the human mind works. Blah, blah. All that and $8 will get you a grande half-caff mocha latte in NYC.
Here’s an answer that will make people listen, and possibly even respect you in the morning. What linguistics is good for is picking up chicks (or, I hear from a certain pair of hottie semanticists I’m friendly with, dudes) of a certain kind—particularly those with an inexplicable desire to date a foreigner. For example, I personally have known (in a certain sense) one chick who only digs Russian dudes. Some people of either sex will just fall all over themselves trying to hook up with a Frenchie. And you know what? If you are at least halfway through a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, passed phonology with a B+ or better, and you’ve been paying any attention whatsoever, you can get in on that action.
For example, Bad Russian Accent—a weird little dialect of English—is actually not that hard. Just listen, hypothesize, and over-apply any generalization you can extract. After all, real Russians are likely to be naively trying to minimize their accents, while you will be trying to maximize your conformance to an exotic and sexy stereotype. Anything beyond a veneer of basic authenticity is only holding you back. And you have another advantage over a real Russian, Parisian, or other semi-exotic European—you probably smell better and have better teeth.
So imagine Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Knights or Sex and the City—though if you find his accent too subtle, think of one of those submarine dudes from the Red October—and what do you hear? They trill their r’s a bit, so now you must trill all of your r’s. Yes, all of them. We aren’t going for delicacy here. They also have darker than English-normal l’s all over the place, so you make your l’s darker. Aggressively devoice final consonants. Over-aspirate your h’s and maybe your y’s if you can do it without choking, and randomly palatalize any other consonant you feel the need to. Vowels should be approximated to the so-called “continental” vowel qualities—move short vowels to the nearest long vowel, and monophthongize everything as much as you dare.
Toss in some stereotypical grammar to complete the picture: Russians have a terrible time with the definite article, so just drop all articles, and any other determiners, possessives, and the like that you think you can do without. Copulas can go right out the window. Russians also seem to have trouble with English tense and aspect, so mix some of those up for good measure. Use the progressive for the present tense, immediate future, or immediate past. Use the present tense for the progressive, and the past participle for the past tense if you like. Is Russian pro-drop? Hell if I know, but it sure sounds foreign! Close enough.
A real-life example of a man approaching a woman, collected in a bar in Manhattan:
Lounge Lizard Loser: Hello Beautiful! My name is Larry and I saw you from across the room, and I have to tell you that I am smitten with you. You make my head swim and my knees weak. Can I buy you a drink so we can get to know each other better?
On the other hand, a “volunteer” approached the same woman in the same bar three weeks later, using the same basic cheap lines, but delivered in Bad Russian Accent:
/maj njem is ajvan, ant aj em siʔiŋk xju from akros rum/.
/em xaviŋk tu tjeɫ xju em smjiten wiθ xju/.
/xju mjek xet swim ant njis wik/.
/kjen aj baj driŋk so wi ar gjetiŋk tu no ič aðr byetr/?
See ... that was easy. Gents, go French as the debonaire Jean-Pierre if that will get you where you want to be better than being Ivan will. Ladies, you can transform yourself into the Slavic goddess Olga or the naughty French maid Marie, if that is what it takes to pique your quarry’s interest. Italian and Spanish are easy, and work well. Avoid Finnish (no one can tell who you are supposed to be) and German (everyone can tell, but no one is interested), and only try Japanese if you’ve passed your Ph.D. qualifying exams.
Picking up chicks (and, from what I hear out of a couple of sociolinguist cuties I know, dudes). Now that is what linguistics is good for.
[Editor’s note: We originally took issue with Dr. van der Meer’s characterizations of his consultants—the so-called “hottie semanticists” and “sociolinguistic cuties”—as potentially demeaning to women, and expect some of our readers may have felt likewise. Jon has since informed us that the hottie semanticists are both male, one straight and one gay, and that while both sociolinguist cuties are straight, one is female and the other male. All four have very active social circles full of linguists of all types, and were merely providing their thoughts on the usefulness of linguistics in picking up men. We realized that, as usual, Jon’s research has been most thorough, and that he is equally demeaning to all people, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation.—Eds.]