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I have been listening to some rants on YouTube against people learning a bunch of languages calling themselves "linguists".

I'm personally interested in both linguistics and languages as a hobby but I have no official training and certainly no qualifications in either.

My instinct was that the ranter was kind of right in his opinion that people who speak many languages are not linguists. But I was uncomfortable with his opinion that you had to have certain pieces of paper to be called a linguist, I think "post doctorate" from memory.

So I looked up "linguist" in some imperfect online dictionaries and was surprised to find both senses. Here's the defs from oxforddictionaries.com (chosen at random):

  1. A person skilled in foreign languages.
  2. A person who studies linguistics.

Now I don't have access to a better dictionary on historical principles from my current location.

I would like to know which of these senses is the original one?

My original opinion was the latter sense but on thinking about it I now expect it to be the former. I doubt the word would be a back-formation from "linguistics".

As a side question, would the first sense now be considered to be colloquial or at least nontechnical or outdated?

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David Crystal uses both definitions and doesn't make any comments as to which is better or not in his little book of language which I recently enjoyed reading :) –  oerkelens Mar 27 at 16:01
The modern usage of 'linguist' is just for a language scientist (studies languages in general). The preferred word for what you want is 'multilingual' or 'polyglot' (which a modern linguist probably should also be to do his job well). 'Linguist' for 'multilingual' is an older usage (worked just fine a while ago), but sounds weird now. –  Mitch Mar 27 at 16:02
You might be surprised that it is a sore point among linguists to be asked "How many languages do you speak?". It seems counterintuitive. In fact the world's most famous living linguist, Noam Chomsky, is totally monolingual. –  hippietrail Mar 27 at 16:12
The short answer is that it didn’t refer to either originally; please see my post for the longer answer. The original sense is still in use, but much less common than the ones you mention. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 27 at 16:23
@ermanen Etymonline attests the earliest sense is “a master of language,” but unfortunately they don't pin down just when it came to mean a master of languages, plural. I strongly suspect, however, that the multilingual sense is still earlier than the linguistics sense. That requires also looking at linguistics (to see just how late a development that word was). –  Bradd Szonye Mar 27 at 17:50

6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The earliest sense of linguist simply means a skilled speaker, such as a rhetorician:

linguist (n.) 1580s, “a master of language, one who uses his tongue freely,” a hybrid from Latin lingua “language, tongue” (see lingual) + -ist. Meaning “a student of language” first attested 1640s.

The original sense survives in the double entendre cunning linguist. The word didn’t refer to the study of language until later, and to linguistics much, much later:

linguistics (n.) “the science of languages,” 1847; see linguistic; also see -ics.

linguistic (adj.) 1856, from French linguistique (1833); see linguist + -ic. The use of linguistic to mean “of or pertaining to language or languages” is “hardly justifiable etymologically,” according to OED, but “has arisen because lingual suggests irrelevant associations.”

Before that, the study of language was called philology.

philology (n.) Meaning “science of language” is first attested 1716 (philologue “linguist” is from 1590s; philologer “linguistic scholar” is from 1650s); this confusing secondary sense has not been popular in the U.S., where linguistics is preferred.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a renowned philologist.

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Merriam-Webster captures the original sense thus: “a person accomplished in languages; especially : one who speaks several languages” – unfortunately, the information I have doesn’t pin down exactly when the “especially” part came into common use, but that sense of the word overall is the older one. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 27 at 16:30
Philology is still in use and I've come across people explaining the difference with linguistics but I can't attempt to state what that difference is off the top of my head. –  hippietrail Mar 27 at 16:42
@hippietrail Wikipedia describes the difference thus: “Because of its focus on historical development (diachronic analysis), philology came to be used as a term contrasting with linguistics. This is due to a 20th-century development triggered by Ferdinand de Saussure's insistence on the importance of synchronic analysis, and the later emergence of structuralism and Chomskyan linguistics with its emphasis on syntax.” –  Bradd Szonye Mar 27 at 16:44
It seems to me a pity that the word 'philology' has diverged in this way, such that 'linguist' now means two entirely different things. Someone who is a competent speaker of several modern languages is, potentially, a very different animal to a person versed in the structure of language. And the two fields would seem to call for quite different skills. I say this as one who has never really had a good 'ear' for learning languages, and the only thing I manage besides English is French, but it has taken years of painstaking effort to get there. –  WS2 Mar 27 at 17:06
And then nowadays, there are linguists, philologists, and historical linguists. People who deal with reconstruction earlier stages of Proto-Indo-European, for example, very rarely refer to themselves as philologists—that epithet is reserved for those who pore over old manuscripts, trying to work out the synchronic state of affairs reflected in them, and deciphering undeciphered writing systems. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 27 at 17:25

linguist (n.) 1580s, "a master of language, one who uses his tongue freely," a hybrid from Latin lingua "language, tongue" (see lingual) + -ist. Meaning "a student of language" first attested 1640s.

According to the etymology both meanings can fit, probably evolving from self-taught scholars to modern language studies.

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This makes it seems unsettled. An original sense has split and crystallised into two modern somewhat opposed senses. By the way this looks like it's from etymonline, if so you should really credit them and link to it. –  hippietrail Mar 27 at 15:52
I added a link to the etymonline entry. Josh61, please be sure to cite your sources, or your posts may be flagged and deleted as plagiarism. –  Bradd Szonye Mar 27 at 16:35
Ok, thanks for your suggestion. –  Josh61 Mar 27 at 16:44

According to the OED, it was originally referred to as a science: "The science of the general comparison of languages, now developing itself under the name of linguistic, has, within a short period, made a very remarkable progress." -- 1825, Asiatic Jrnl


The OED fully supports Josh's response: according to the definition of "Linguist", not Linguistics.

Definition of Linguist: "A person who is skilled in the learning or use of foreign languages. Also fig. and in figurative contexts."

-1582 Bible (Rheims) 1 Cor. xiv. 457 (margin) Much like to some fond Linguists of our time, who thinke them selues better then a doctor of Diuinitie that is not a Linguist.

-1593 G. Harvey Pierces Supererogation Aunsw. Lett. sig. **3v, Be thou Iohn, the many-tongued Linguist, like Andrewes, or the curious Intelligencer, like Bodley.

OED: Linguist

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Sadly I don't have access to the OED even by that link. Does it offer anything that might tie up with the 1580s sense brought in by Josh61 in his answer (I think from etymonline)? –  hippietrail Mar 27 at 15:51
Yes, it does. The OED fully supports Josh's response: Definition: "A person who is skilled in the learning or use of foreign languages. Also fig. and in figurative contexts." 1582 Bible (Rheims) 1 Cor. xiv. 457 (margin) Much like to some fond Linguists of our time, who thinke them selues better then a doctor of Diuinitie that is not a Linguist. 1593 G. Harvey Pierces Supererogation Aunsw. Lett. sig. **3v, Be thou Iohn, the many-tongued Linguist, like Andrewes, or the curious Intelligencer, like Bodley. –  xserf Mar 27 at 15:53
I see that you are new here, your answer would be much improved by adding this additional information in your comment into the answer itself. Thanks! –  hippietrail Mar 27 at 15:55

My answer has more to do with your side question than your main one (which others have addressed) but I think a look at the definitions and current usage is relevant.

MW has "linguistic" as

of or relating to language or linguistics;

a "linguist" as

a person accomplished in languages; especially : one who speaks several languages

a person who specializes in linguistics;

and "linguistics" as

the study of human speech including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language

MW goes on to say of "linguistics":

Study of the nature and structure of language. It traditionally encompasses semantics, syntax, and phonology.


With the rise of historical linguistics in the 19th century, linguistics became a science.

Someone with a strong propensity for studying/learning foreign languages may be said to have good linguistic skills, but somebody who studies how a language or languages in general work OR who is accomplished in languages, is a linguist.

At first sight, the definition in your question, "A person skilled in foreign languages." surprised me as it seemed so simplistic (compare to MW's definition above), but looking at the example sentences that accompany this definition, we have

He was also an accomplished linguist speaking nine foreign languages including Chinese and Tibetan.

He was a formidable linguist, speaking 25 languages and many more dialects.

A skilled linguist, Marianne used her new-found freedom to become an interpreter for the British Army.

In each of these instances, the person described as a "linguist" is accomplished at speaking (generally a great number) of foreign languages. These are not people who enjoy studying foreign languages, or have only learnt keywords/phrases, or simply have a knack for picking up languages - these are people who likely will have studied these languages in depth and arrived at a high level of fluency. These people require "linguistic" skills, but more than likely have also engaged in "linguistics", and thus are "linguists" in the "true" sense of the word.

Of course, anybody can use "linguist" to describe themselves, but this does not mean that they are "linguists" from the field of "linguistics".

It pays (for the YouTube ranters) to keep in mind that etymology is not a dictatorial force, and that it is current usage that dictates current meaning. There does seem to be a plethora of things online these days about how much everyone loves grammar and how important it is (examples) - a sort of "pop-linguistics" trend that has perhaps surpassed that of the "pop-psychology" that was everywhere a couple of decades ago. People are free to describe themselves as "linguists" if they have an interest or any knowledge of language(s) at all. It is a matter of preference how freely one wishes to apply the word, but it pays to keep in mind how your audience is likely to understand the word.

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linguistics (n.) "the science of languages," 1847; see linguistic; also see -ics.

The scientific sense of linguist came long after the actual meanings of linguist. So linguist can be used for someone who studies/masters a language/languages.

There is also multilinguist who studies/uses several languages.

Multilingualism is the act of using polyglotism, or using multiple languages, either by an individual speaker or by a community of speakers. Multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world's population.

multilingual (adj.) also multi-lingual, 1838, from multi- + Latin lingua "language," literally "tongue"

And lastly, there is polyglot who masters several languages. (though multilingualism can cover this also)

Polyglotism or polyglottism is the ability to master numerous languages. Multilingualism is a word with a similar meaning.

polyglot (adj.) 1650s, from Greek polyglottos "speaking many languages," literally "many-tongued," from polys "many" (see poly-) + glotta, Attic variant of glossa "language," literally "tongue" (see gloss (n.2)). As a noun from 1640s.

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Thanks for the other info but the question was focusing on just the development of the senses of "linguist". I know most senses will have synonyms and related words, etc. –  hippietrail Mar 27 at 16:08
Yes, I emphasized that scientific meaning came after but it is more common in the current vernacular. Extra information about similar words would be helpful to understand the etymology and development of the word as well. –  ermanen Mar 27 at 16:12
The word "doctor" could originally be used simply of anyone who was learned, and only later came to mean someone with a doctorate OR a physician. There are some who object to those with doctorates who are not physicians but who call themselves "doctor." It's all a matter of context, isn't it? If you're on a plane and the stewardess asks "is there a doctor aboard," you'd better not answer yes if you have a PhD in linguistics. –  outis nihil Mar 27 at 16:22

Whilst, I use the term 'glossology' for the study of language, I find neither noematism colloquial but opinion is just that. I follow my sprachgefühl nature, a consequence of learning multiple languages in infancy.

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