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Linguistics-related FAQs

"What do you do?"

See my home page for a description of what I do.

"What languages do you speak?"

Well, linguistics isn't about what languages I speak (see below), but I do know a few. I'm a native speaker of English. I also speak Russian, and Kyrgyz, and Kazakh fairly well, and I can converse at a basic level in Mongolian, Tatar, and Uzbek; I also used to be conversant in French, Spanish, and Yiddish, but find it difficult to actively use these languages now. Beyond these, I know a bunch of other languages with either basic reading and writing ability or some level of "linguistic knowledge", but can't speak them very well. See my resumé.

"What is linguistics?"

In general, linguistics is the scientific study of language. Linguists desire to understand language and its psychological reality—what may and may not be possible systems for languages, and why. For a more thorough explanation, see wikipedia's article on linguistics.

"What is phonology?"

Phonology is the study of languages' sound systems; i.e., it has the same goals as linguistics, but focuses on systems related to the manner of language production. See wikipedia's article on phonology.

"What camp of phonology do you subscribe to?"

I like phonetically grounded constraint-based models, such as Optimality Theory and its relatives. I find OT familiar and comfortable to work with, though I enjoy hearing what other frameworks have to contribute and I take issue with the way many things are done in OT, including certain aspects of the basic premise itself. I prefer, of course, theory-agnostic and phonetically-driven approaches to phonology, but this obviously doesn't always satisfy the issues. I have it in mind that there must be at least two layers to phonology, and think a lot of problems are best solved with an as-of-yet undeveloped model of phonology stemming from this idea. At some level, I'm something like a structural functionalist or a functional structuralist (that is, there's a place and time for both functionalist and structuralist approaches).

"What camp of syntax do you subscribe to?"

This is hard, since I'm not familiar enough with much beyond GB. Really, everything's looked about as good to me so far. Minimalism shows some promise, but I don't know enough about it (does anyone? Just kidding..). The one theory that stands out as making a lot of sense to me is Jackendoff's so called "simpler syntax". I can't say I'll join that camp just yet, though, as I have some reading to do first.

Also, HPSG seems much more predictive than other frameworks, so I like it for that. It seems far separated from the cognitive aspect, though, which I'm never fond of in a linguistic theory. A chunking approach seems much more reasonable for this (and other) reasons, though I still don't know enough about this approach to comment some. Hopefully I'll work with a computational implementation of it some soon.

But I'm not a syntactician.

"English is the most expressive language — what can you learn from studying other languages that you can't learn by knowing English?"

Many people, including those who've studied other languages and those who haven't, feel that their native language is the most expressive language. Some argue that English has more words than any other language, and that because of that it's more expressive. I'll explain why both of these points are not true, and then explain a little bit about the use of studying other languages.

First of all, it's a common illusion that your native language is more expressive than other languages. As it turns out, most languages can express most any idea, though some do it more efficiently for certain ideas (as they have an already established way to express it, such as a specific word or phrase), whereas others are less efficient for certain ideas (i.e., lack a specific word or established way of expressing it). For example, English (to my knowledge—so at least my English) doesn't have a convenient way of expressing the Kyrgyz verb ‘сыдыр-’ meaning something like "to wipe something off [of a long item] by holding the item at the top with one hand and pulling away down the item's length with the other hand, pinching between thumb and forefinger(s)". Likewise, Kyrgyz doesn't have a convenient way of expressing the general idea expressed by English ‘soda’/‘pop’/etc, but can talk about them as a group by saying ‘газдалган ширин ичимдиктер’ — "sweet carbonated beverages".

Also, just because a language "has a large number of words" (e.g., in the dictionary) doesn't mean that it has the most number of words of any language. It also doesn't mean that all of those words are used by the speakers of that language or that all the words would even be understood by the majority of the speakers of the language. Furthermore, the expressiveness of a language can't be measured by the number of words in use anyway; there are quite a number of grammatical constructions and types of word combinations that languages employ to add more specific meaning. For example, in English you can ‘read’ something or you can ‘read through’ something or you can ‘read over’ something, etc. These word combinations add detail to the meaning that could otherwise be obtained by "adding" words to the language, but instead is done with already existing "words". Likewise, in Kyrgyz you can ‘оку-’ something, you can ‘окуп чык-’ something, you can ‘окуп ал-’ something, etc. In this case, already existing ~verbs are used similarly to the way already existing ~prepositions are used in English to add more detail to the meaning of what's being said. To various extents, languages can combine elements infinitely (within certain limits) to express an infinite number of thoughts.

Linguists attempt to study all aspects of language to better understand its psychological reality, which in turn lets us know how it's possible for humans to learn and use language in the capacities that we do. A lot of what we know about language so far has been learned through the comparison of different linguistic systems (~languages) to one another: what each one can do and how it does it gives us an idea about what the human capacity for language is capable of (and not) in general, which gives insights into its limits and how it works. This has larger implications for neuroscience, evolutionary anthropology, artificial intelligence, and many other fields.

"Everyone knows English — what can you get from studying other languages that you can't get by knowing English?"

There are many reasons to study other languages. Take the example of an American businessman going overseas—say to Russia—to establish a business deal with a Russian company. If the American businessman knows just English and hires a translator, they will miss a lot of what's actually going on in their dealings, and will also be treated with distance at best, and as a complete outsider at worst. Even if the Russian company's representatives know English, they will operate under the assumption that this American knows nothing about the various social, political, and cultural contexts that this business transaction is taking place in (that is, the Russian contexts).

Now imagine the same example, except where the American knows a good deal of Russian and something about the modern Russian cultural context. He will be treated much more as an insider by the Russian company, and he'll have a much better idea of what's going on in this business deal. He'll have quite an advantage in being able to bargain and knowing the limits of how far he can take such negotiations. All of this (and I mean every little piece of what his Russian is doing for him) will make him much more likely to negotiate a more equitable deal for himself/his company.

Bargaining has culturally specific limits that can be learned in the process of language learning. Everything else is like this too, many things to the extreme. Hence, knowing the language of your interlocutors is highly advantageous in any interaction (as opposed to relying solely on their knowledge of your language, or worse, a translator), at the very least for the good impression it creates.

One of the complicating factors here, though, is that this sort of knowledge isn't normally learned in classroom (at least not exclusively), but is learned from spending time living immersed in another language and culture. This requires a good deal more of an initial investment on the part of the person wishing to learn something about the other language/culture, though starting study of said language in a classroom is a good start.

What's the point of linguistics?

Studying language scientifically (=linguistics) has a lot of benefits to society. Unfortunately, many non-linguists don't see this, and can be critical of the field. Even what I do, which some have told me straight out is just my own "selfish pursuit of knowledge", can directly feed back into things society may benefit from more immediately than something so "esoteric" may appear to be able to contribute. Here I'm collecting some examples of how linguistics has value that may be perceived by non-linguists, aside from the obvious examples (spelling and grammar checkers, smart searching, better foreign language education, a better understanding of the brain and human psyche, etc.).