What Is It You Do?
Alexandra D’Arcy is a sociolinguist by training and specializes in the study of language variation and change. She is an Assistant Professor in Linguistics and the Director of the newly formed Sociolinguistics Lab at the University of Victoria. This is the second installation in her new monthly column so be sure to check back next month.
Some of you may recall the Friends episode in which Ross breathlessly exclaims that he has a date with a professor from NYU: ‘She’s a linguist! They’re wild!’ I’d really like to meet Ross, because at parties or other social occasions, the fact that I am a linguist has never, not even once, elicited such excitement. In fact, whenever someone asks what I do or what I teach, my answer generally elicits one of three responses, none of which includes shortness of breath.
The first is the obviously befuddled ‘Oh yeah?’ This response is accompanied by the glazing over of the speaker’s eyes as they turn away from me, searching the room for an escape. A spin on this is ‘Oh, cool.’ The crucial difference here is the attempt to seem somewhat familiar with what it is a linguist does before, inevitably, searching the room for an escape.
The second and most popular response is the excited ‘So how many languages do you speak?’ Nobody seems very impressed with my answer, which is ‘Just two.’ I almost feel guilty when I see the disappointment etched across their face as I try to explain the difference between the study of language and the speaking of languages.
The third response, and what I hope to answer here, is the exceedingly rare ‘What does a linguist actually do?’ Since linguistics is the scientific study of language, and since phrases like ‘the scientific study of language’ immediately revert us back to glazed eyes and desperate escape attempts, I have to go a different route. I talk about what I do rather than attempt a strict definition.
I’m a sociolinguist, so I study the intersection between social structure and language practice. Things like your gender, your ethnicity, your occupation, your social networks and your hobby groups affect the way you talk. This is why no two people talk exactly the same way. Some of us prefer somebody while others prefer someone. Many of us even use both. Sometimes we say that we’re going to do something, and sometimes we say that we will do something. And sometimes we say that while sometimes we just say. But despite all these differences and variations, we still manage to understand one another. How does that work? And why is it that English today isn’t the same as the English of 500 years ago, or 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago? How does that work? Where do changes come from? Who starts them? These are the kinds of questions that I try to answer. I’m a sociolinguist, and I study why we talk the way we do. Fascinating stuff, really; dare I even say it’s wild?