LINGUIST List 3.429

Fri 22 May 1992

Disc: How did we end up linguists?

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  1. Stavros Macrakis, 3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects
  2. Zvi Gilbert, Re: 3.421 Linguists
  3. , RE: 3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects
  4. , On becoming a linguist

Message 1: 3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects

Date: Wed, 20 May 92 14:06:03 ED3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects
From: Stavros Macrakis <>
Subject: 3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects (Martin Volk) says:

 It seems to me that many linguists have entered the field because at some
 point in their lives they have had trouble with using language or with
 communication in general.

Folklore in the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab was that graduate
students often worked on problems where they had personal
difficulties. For instance, there was the clumsy student interested
in robotics, the student working on recognition of faces who didn't
recognize his wife at the airport, the student working on navigating
city streets who regularly got lost, etc.

Thus, the story goes, the department was particularly leery of
candidates who said that their area of interest was ``general

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Message 2: Re: 3.421 Linguists

Date: Wed, 20 May 1992 16:22:24Re: 3.421 Linguists
From: Zvi Gilbert <>
Subject: Re: 3.421 Linguists

In response to Martin Volk's hypothesis that trouble with language
early in life could be a reason why some people end up as linguists:

I would disagree with this, at least in my case... and I would like to
advance another hypothesis in its place. Many of the people that I
know who are studying linguistics at the graduate level or are
linguistics professionals have strong interests in both the sciences
and the humanities. In my case, I did English Literature as an
undergrad, yet in High School, I was a sciences-type person. Many
people I know have similar stories.

Linguistics, of course, is "the most scientific of the the humanities,
and the most human of the sciences"; it's right in between, and so
seems an appropriate place for those of us who like to do both.

This seems to correlate with an interest in Science Fiction, a
literary genre that shares with linguistics the property of being on
the borderline between the arts and sciences.

--Zvi Gilbert
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Message 3: RE: 3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects

Date: Thu, 21 May 1992 10:14:20 RE: 3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects
Subject: RE: 3.421 Linguists, Human Subjects

Well, for one, I didn't get into linguistics through a speech impediment
or a joyous 2nd language learning experience. A friend said an A in
Linguistics was easy and I was bored with the rats and stats of Psych 100.
But in retrospect, I carved out my career path quite early. As a precocious
8 year old I reinforced my baby brother's beginning phonology and morphology
and then left for boarding school before he could learn real English. I
then communicated via ciphers by letter, for another year or so. As a result,
he couldn't spell his name until he was eleven and is now a hot-shot
graphics programmer doing research for Rolls-Royce aviation. No doubt the
human subjects committee would be down on me like a ton of bricks.
Today, I make up Aboriginal languages just before the alleged last speaker
disappears. Nothing has changed much.

Alan Dench
Centre for Linguistics
University of WA
Nedlands, WA 6009
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Message 4: On becoming a linguist

Date: 21 May 1992, 14:23:54 CST On becoming a linguist
From: <>
Subject: On becoming a linguist

I too have a theory on why linguistics attracted many of us.
As a field it ranges from the humanities to the hard sciences,
with the majority of its subdisciplines falling into the
general area of social sciences. I have spoken with many
linguists who started their scholarly lives as scientists (chem-
istry, physics ...) and wanted something which seemed more like
a humanities discipline (often in the more European sense of
`sciences humaines', disciplines which deal with people), while
many others (including myself) started in foreign languages
and literatures and found we wanted something more scientific
than literary analysis. I think the second-language learning
component of it is important, as suggested in a posting I
read today, but not always because of *difficulty* with
learning a language; but rather a desire to keep working with language
in some form without doing literature. On a personal note,
I can clearly remember my relief, as an undergraduate, to
discover linguistics through a comparative Romance course.
It meant that majoring in French made sense even if Sartre
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