An Assassin’s Alphabet—Mona Whit & Ethan Macht SpecGram Vol CXCII, No 1 Contents Scriptominoes III—Trey Jones & Keith Slater

Linguistics, The Study of Linguists: An Overview

Anna Grimsdóttir, PhD, Fuþorc University

It is a common misconception held by the general public, and even by most linguists, that linguistics is the study of language. Generations of textbooks and popular articles have perpetuated this urban legend as to the nature of linguistics, but in reality, it is linguistry1 (the adjectival form of which is “linguical”) that is the study of language. The term “linguistics” actually refers to the study of linguists, and those who work in the field of linguistics are called linguisticians. This may seem like an incredible claim, but one has only to look at the morphology of the word (lingu-ist-ics) and the abundant literature written by linguisticians to see that this is merely a description of the true nature of the field. In the hope of educating both ivory-tower-dwelling linguists and non-ivory-tower-dwelling average Joes and Janes, this article will attempt to provide an overview of the main topics that linguistics is concerned with.

Schools of Linguistics

Linguistics is a diverse field, and there are several approaches and traditions within linguistics.

Sociological linguistics studies the sociological relations and interactions between linguists, including the power structures that determine which linguists have power over other linguists. One important concept in sociological linguistics is that of the linguical repertoire, which is the set of all linguical ideas, theories, and frameworks that linguists know and employ in different contexts in order to get more grant funding or obtain employment or tenure.

Phonetic linguistics studies the differences in the speech of different kinds of linguists. One particular area of interest in phonetic linguistics is that of determining how a linguist’s specialization influences how they produce sounds. For example, studies have shown that phoneticians tend to have a larger phonetic inventory in their output than do corpus linguists or stylisticians.

Phonological linguistics studies the beliefs that different kinds of linguists have about phonology, and the differences in prevalence of these beliefs in different regions of the world and in different theoretical camps. Such beliefs have to do with, for example, whether there is any phonological framework that can adequately account for cross-linguical data and whether phonemes exist. However, phonological linguistics is not merely descriptive; it also aims to be explanatory. For example, an important challenge for phonological linguistics is determining why different linguists have different attitudes towards phonological theories. Though a number of theories exist in phonological linguistics as to why these differences of opinion exist, there is no consensus among phonological linguisticians in regards to whether any of these theories can properly account for the variability of phonologists’ theoretical beliefs.

Morphological linguistics studies the differences in body types and brain structure between different subcategories of linguists. One of the main avenues of research in morphological linguistics consists of studying the relation between the type of work linguists do and their physiology to determine if there is any causal link between particular types of linguical research and body shape or brain structure. For example, a morphological linguist might look at the types of physical activity engaged in by dialectologists, field linguists, and semioticians and compare such activity to the observed physiology of the linguists in question to see if there are any correlational patterns that can be observed. Similarly, a morphological linguist might look at the types of intellectual work done by morphologists, psycholinguists, and conlanguists to see if any correlations or causal patterns can be observed between different types of intellectual activity and brain morphology.

Historical linguistics studies the academic genealogies of linguists to trace the development of linguical ideas from mentor to disciple, classify these ideas according to the proto-ideas they derive from (such as Proto-Chomsky, Proto-Saussure, and Proto-Grimm), and determine the degree of relatedness of these ideas. Historical linguistics often overlaps with sociological linguistics because studying the history of linguical ideas often involves analyzing power struggles between different traditions as well as the changes in prestige of different linguical ideas over time.

Finally, applied linguistics studies linguists’ employment rates, how they manage to find employment, and (if they do) what type of employment it is2 in order to determine how linguists can best find jobs after their studies. Despite the long pedigree of applied linguistics, critics argue that it has resulted in no useful innovations or improvements to linguists’ employment rate or salaries, and that non-linguistic approaches involving general employment and economic statistics and datasets containing non-linguical jobs (in addition to the linguical academic positions that are the exclusive focus of applied linguistics) achieve much better results. They also argue that applied linguistics is not really linguistics because it is a fundamentally prescriptivist endeavour that aims to change linguists’ employment situation when it is suboptimal (which is usually the case) rather than describe it. In response, proponents argue both claims are inaccurate. They point to the fact that the field of applied linguistics has led to the generation of countless thousands of descriptive academic papers on the subject of linguists’ employment and therefore to the generation of countless jobs both for the linguisticians writing those articles, as well as for the linguists serving as informants and study participants for linguisticians’ research. As a result, applied linguisticians argue that applied linguistics does have positive effects on linguists’ employment, and that this is a side-effect of its descriptive focus rather a prescriptive attempt to affect employment rates.

Populations Studied by Linguisticians

Besides these general approaches, there are also a number of subdisciplines of linguistics that study specific types of linguists. Some of these subfields include pragmaticistics, semanticistics, phonologistics, syntacticistics, and others whose objects of research are obvious from their name. These subfields can be combined with the approaches described in the previous chapter, resulting in fields such as sociological syntacticistics (the sociological study of syntacticists3), sociological historical linguistics (the sociological study of historical linguists4, 5) sociological philologistics6 (the sociological study of philologists), and phonetic phonologistics (the study of the phonetics of the speech of phonologists).


Unfortunately, because of the general lack of awareness of the existence of the field of linguistics even among linguists, many subfields that could be fruitful avenues of research, such as sociological morphologistics and morphological sociolinguistics, have been completely unexplored. Thus, despite the great strides that have been made in some fields of linguistics, there are vast areas where much research remains to be conducted. It is to be hoped that future linguisticians will examine the lacunae in modern linguistic research and fill them before linguists discover them. Only in this way will linguistics manage to avoid the self-interest and ladder-climbing biases that would taint the field if linguists were to start writing about themselves.7

1 An alternative analysis would be, given that no one uses the word “linguistry”, that English has no word for “the study of language”. This could very well be the case, and indeed one significant piece of evidence in support of this idea is the fact that languages that have a word for “the study of language” have been more significant meta-languages for the study of language than English has. Examples of such languages include German (Sprachwissenschaft), Dutch (taalkunde) and Icelandic (málvísindi)all important meta-languages in the history of the study of language. Nevertheless, for the sake of convenience, this article will use the term “linguistry” (not to be confused with “sophistry”) throughout.

2 For example, the public sector or corporate shilling, language description or theoretical creative writing, computational work or peer-reviewed manual cherry-picking, academia or a real job, etc.

3 Incidentally, a field which has been booming over the past several decades.

4 This was formerly the dominant subfield in linguistics, but it has decreased in popularity and boomingness as a result of the increased level of interest in sociological syntacticistics.

5 The ebbs and flows in the popularity of historical linguistics can be seen by the fact that English formerly had a word for it (‘philology’), whereas modern English does not, having instead replaced it with the non-word “historical linguistics”.

6 See footnote 4.

7 Indeed, the field of linguistics may in the future itself be the subject of a field studying linguisticians. Certainly, the development of such a field (which could be called linguisticsics, linguisticianics, or meta-linguistics) would help to foster accountability among linguisticians by making them self-conscious about, and intent on ensuring, the integrity and objectivity of their work.

An Assassin’s AlphabetMona Whit & Ethan Macht
Scriptominoes IIITrey Jones & Keith Slater
SpecGram Vol CXCII, No 1 Contents