LINGUIST List 2.545

Sat 21 Sep 1991

Disc: Linguist

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , unpaid linguists
  2. Jim Scobbie, what is a linguist... what am I?
  3. "Michael Kac", what is a linguist... what am I?

Message 1: unpaid linguists

Date: Wed, 18 Sep 91 10:24:59 EST
From: <>
Subject: unpaid linguists
I was interested in the implications of Margaret Fleck's message about
how in the UK the terms for professionals can be applied to, say, under-
graduates whose real interests are in rowing. Certainly that differs
from my own usage. However, the message seemed to indicate that in the
States, "linguist" or "chemist" can refer only to paid professionals.
Where would this leave a graduate student without funding? A recent,
jobless PhD? Or a BA in chemistry who has worked for 10 years in a
commercial lab and is now taking an indeterminate time off for purposes
of raising a family?
I think I myself use the term "linguist" for anyone who would say that
their professional career--whether or not they are currently being paid--
is or will be in linguistics; same for chemistry, math, etc.
Back to what it means "to do linguistics"...
--Elise Morse-Gagne
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: what is a linguist... what am I?

Date: Wed, 18 Sep 91 16:59:52 PDT
From: Jim Scobbie <scobbieCsli.Stanford.EDU>
Subject: what is a linguist... what am I?
In response to the question `what is a linguist'...
I am. I do the core things that linguists do, except I fail
to speak large numbers (greater than 1&3/4) of languages. This
results in the general public eyeing me suspiciously. They clearly
don't think I count. Let me turn the question around: what am I?
I can't call myself a `lecturer', because I don't (I'm a post-doc).
I can call myself a `fellow' but that is taken a funny way.
I've tried `phonologist' and `phonetician' (the latter is inaccurate,
but that's not what is at issue) but people seem to think that means
a dialectologist or elocutionist, and again, are disappointed.
My father-in-law insists on calling me a `linguistician'. :-(
What can I do to get a comprehensible, yet glam, job-title.
This mailing list seems to be the ideal forum for the question... what
does a theoretical phonologist who doesn't teach or speak languages
call themself? Everyone out there must have had a similar problem.
Perhaps I could collect replies by email (
to save bandwidth. To hope for the answer to the follow-up `what's
that all about then' question would be too much I suppose.
James M. Scobbie: Dept of Linguistics, Stanford University, CA 94305-2150
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: what is a linguist... what am I?

Date: Fri, 20 Sep 91 15:50:21 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: what is a linguist... what am I?
Who is and isn't a linguist
The question of who is and isn't a linguist is a question that is
fraught with pain for some people. As a member (and now chair)
of a department that has both theoretical and applied components,
this is a matter that has been discussed quite a bit in my precincts
and I'm no closer to having a resolution of it than I have ever
been. But I'll pass on some thoughts anyway.
First of all, I think that there are clear cases where anyone would
say about X 'Yes, X is a linguist'. If X holds a degree in linguistics
and works on syntax or phonology, publishing the results of this
work in such journals as Language, NLLT, L&P, or LI then that
person is virtually certain to be a linguist.
There are also obviously clear negative cases, though very
uninteresting ones. Einstein wasn't a linguist.
The difficult cases involve people whose work DOES have
something to do with language. Some of these people are, both by
training and orientation, so far removed from anything that goes
on in isntitutionalized linguistics, even in some of its most obscure
quarters, that one could say with confidence 'No, they're not
linguists.' But where precisely do we put people in such fields as:
communication disorders; psychology of language; philosophy of
language; structuralist criticism (to name a few categories)?
I know people in most of the aforementioned categories, and they
differ. The person in CDIS I know best is highly knowedgeable
about linguistics but was not trained as a linguist. On the other
hand, my best friend from graduate school days, whose degree is
in linguistics and who considers herself a linguist, is in many ways
much more like people in CDIS and is farther away from what we
think of as 'core' linguistics than the first person I mentioned.
To a certain extent it has also to do with how you think. I once
had an extremely interesting conversation with a well known
psychologist of language (degreed in psychology). We were in
disagreement about something (I forget what it was) and I took a
moment to try to think of an example of a sentence with a specific
relevant property he had mentioned. I came up with the example,
which prompted him to remark that this was the kind of thing he
simply couldn't do and that this was what distinguished him from
a linguist.
Margaret Fleck (I think) remarked that in Britain a term like
'chemist' can be used to refer even to someone just studying
chemistry. (There is of course another common British sense,
namely 'pharmacist' -- but then there is that other sense of
'linguist' too that makes us all cringe!) To me, certain terms of this
kind can be used to refer at least to someone who has aptitude for
a particular subject. I've had students in my courses from other
fields about whom I could easily say '(S)he's a good linguist',
meaning '(S)he's good at linguistics'. I believe that a term like
'mathematician' can be used in the same way.
Some nonlinguists have had sufficient influence on our field that
they have been given more or less honorary linguist status.
Richard Montague is the best example that comes to mind. But I
still don't think of him as a linguist -- though I certainly do think
of Barbara Partee as one!
A litmus test: is Roger Schank a linguist?
And, as long as we're on this topic: what is a philologist?
Michael Kac
P.S. Here's another relevant anecdote. At a talk I heard some
years ago by yet another psychologist, the audience was at one
point asked to identify what the words 'bat', 'ball' and 'diamond'
have in common. The answer sought, and the one most people
gave (they were nearly all nonlinguists), was that the three words
all have to do with baseball. But a colleague of mine remarked as
we were leaving afterward that her answer would have been
'They all begin with voiced stops'. I think that what makes her
answer a linguist's answer par excellence is not merely that it
makes use of the conceptual apparatus and technical verbiage of
phonetics but that whereas the majority answer had to do with
the meanings of the words, she focused immediately on form.
P.P.S. I once heard a mathematical colleague of mine here describe
W.V.O. Quine as someone who doesn't know any mathematics.
So who's a mathematician?
I don't think we're alone in this.
Michael Kac
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue