Linguistic Sub-Fields Explained for the Research Novice—Sun Field & Lynn Gwee SpecGram Vol CLXXXIX, No 1 Contents Onomastic Destiny ♀—Emma Gassert & Dirk Delarme

The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective

Are you in a world of linguistic hurt? The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective (SLAC) will offer you empirical, empathic, emphatic advice you can use!*

Remember, if you can tell the difference between good advice and bad advice, then you don’t need advice! So, if you need advice, trust usand cut yourself some SLAC!


Dear SLAC Pack,

I’ve been having a hard time explaining to my family and non-linguistics-grad friends (both of them) just what it is I do all day. (Well, in practice what I do all day is lie in bed and browse Twitter, but I digress...) Which brings me to my main question: what is linguistics really? Is it a natural science, a social science, or a humanity? Or maybe a sandwich? Help me find my place on the disciplinary map!

—Stuart Dent

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Linguistics is the scientific study of language as a system.

To assume that there are ‘languages out there’ in the world, which can be systematised according to morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), semantics (meaning) etc., is a big assumption, but supposedly something on which linguists are meant to agree. I don’t agree with that, but I’ve worked on that assumption to get sh$t done. And to remain paid.

—SLAC Unit #4a6f73687561

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Dear Stu,

Linguistics is not science, but rather silence. Not the kind of silence you get after reading a passage of Derrida to a physicist, nor even the kind of silence that ensues when a safety-masked chemist bearing (at arm’s length) a smoking Erlenmeyer flask bustles mistakenly into an 18th Century British Literature class in medias res, but rather that most naturally and socially human of silencesthe ephemeral moment of contemplative bliss that follows the undergraduate field methods student’s excited pronouncement, just before time runs out on a long and frustratingly unenlightening elicitation group discussion, “Wait! Maybe it’s an absolutive!”

—SLAC Unit #4b65697468

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Dear Stu:

Linguistics is not so much a sandwich as a hotly contested sandwich factory, in which the cooks argue over what morphological meat if any is to be placed between the highly mustarded phonology ciabatta and lightly mayonnaised syntax flatbread.

—SLAC Unit #4d696b61656c

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Dear Dental Stew,

Based on the morphology (to pick a phrase which linguists love!), linguistics is closely related to physics, genetics and economics and is therefore a science. (Find me an -ics in the arts and I’ll buy you a year’s subscription to Teach Yourself Loglan!) Further word-internal etymological evidence for this scientistic position is in the lingu- element: linguistics is the science of the tongue and therefore a sub-discipline of biology. That said, a contrariwise position often taken since the shattering of linguistic hegemony in 1972 with the posthumous publication of Sapir’s Why I Am Not (Really!?!?) a Linguist: Travels and Travails of a Self-Aware Yet Hyper-Critical Itinerant Lingua-Minstrel in the Far-Off-Yet-Oh-So-Near Lands (And Love Nests) of Languagi­sationalising in which Sapir advanced his (in)famous subjectivist linguistics to a new, exciting and ultimately very real epistemological territory, linguistics entered its post-modern phase, in which it was declared in the seminal Sunderland Manifesto of 1985 to be ‘whatever any native speaker wants it to be’. This of course has the corollary that a bi- or multi-lingual individual can hold multiple and in principle opposing views of what linguistics may be. So, best find one or more of them, then, and see what they think!

—SLAC Unit #4465616b

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Dear Stewed Enchilada,

Contra SLAC Unit #4d696b61656c, linguistics is, in fact, a sandwich. In the center is the buttery, protinutious goo of finding as many ways as possible to demonstrate that all languages are secretly the same language wearing different combinations of colored contacts and fake mustaches. Next to this is the sugary yumminess of collecting all 6207 words for red. And all this is sandwiched between the bread of actually understanding human brains, the bread of making useful computer models, the bread of explaining why the weirdness scale of languages runs precisely counter to the intuitions of Americans, the bread of recording as many people as possible making funny noises, ... Wait, how many sides does a sandwich have again?

—SLAC Unit #44616e69656c

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Dear Stewed Crouton,

Actually, linguistics is basically a multicultural food restaurant with a whole mess of offerings available hot and greasy Texas-style just the way you like it, each culture offering only one or two dishes (Malagasy Voice, for example, is very popular, handed down from cookbook to cookbook, as are Inuit Ergativity and Swahili Class Prefixes) ripped out of the culture’s cuisine as a whole and glommed together to illustrate the latest version of Universal Spicing. Just sit right down and raise that Invisibly Green-White-Red flag on the pole to order more Seri Sopapillas and Mixteca Iced Tea and chow down!

—SLAC Unit #4d696b61656c

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Dear Little Stu, Piddly Little Stu,

Linguistics comes from a combination of the words linguiça and sticks, which explains why the field was traditionally a big sausage fest. Semanticists categorize it as a sandwich ingredient. Syntacticians argue about the proper way to put it between two slices of bread. (Note the similarity between grammar and granary. Universal grammar started out as a joke, but few people understood Chomsky’s rye humor.) If your friends think that linguistics doesn’t cut the mustard, just tell them they don’t have the stomach to see how the sausage gets made.

—SLAC Unit #56696e63656e74

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Dear Souperman,

Please disregard SLAC Unit #44616e69656c’s advice on culinary matters. He views all things as sandwiches. Even hot dogscan you believe that?

—SLAC Unit #456d696c79

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To Whomever It May Concern,

It would seem apparent that linguistics is what people study when they like languages but don’t want to spend the time actually learning more than one. That would explain why so much of linguistics is done on and in English and why it took so long to realised that SVO wasn’t some fixed rule. Nowadays, you can find linguists working in such esteemed areas as, making sure your smarthome gadgets tell the neighbours what you said about them, taking money from investors for gadgets that turn your speech into another language (while telling the neighbours what you said about them), and other stuff involving field trips that I don’t quite understand.

Either that or linguistics is involved in discovering deeper truths about languages and communication. But I don’t know if anyone really cares about that.

Sorry, what was your question again?

—SLAC Unit #4a6f6e617468616e

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Dear DentStuartDent,

We’re linguists here, not lexicographers. Our role is to study the relationship between form and meaning in the abstract, not merely dispense definitions on demand.

—SLAC Unit #50657465

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Indeed, aren’t definitions the responsibility of your aunt Susie?

—SLAC Unit #56696e63656e74

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Dear Arthur,

Just tell them that linguistics is mostly harmless.

—SLAC Unit #54726579

* Advice is not guaranteed to be useful, practical, or even possible. Do not attempt at home. Consult a doctor (of linguistics, philology, orin a pinchanthropology) before undertaking any course of treatment. This advice is not intended to cure or treat any disease or condition, inherent or contingent. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental, except when it is not. “Empirical” means that we asked at least two other “people” whether our advice was good; one or more of those “people” may be voices in our own heads. “Emphatic” means that you may print out a copy of the advice for personal use in a medium, semi-bold, bold, heavy, black, or ultra-black weight of an italic or oblique typeface using an enlarged font size. “Empathic” means that deep down, in the darkest recesses of our blackest heart of hearts, we really, really care ♥just not necessarily about you.

Linguistic Sub-Fields Explained for the Research NoviceSun Field & Lynn Gwee
Onomastic Destiny ♀Emma Gassert & Dirk Delarme
SpecGram Vol CLXXXIX, No 1 Contents