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When I think of “linguistics”, I typically think of the study of spoken languages, particularly phonetics. Compared to “language”, which of course is used of writing systems, it carries to me a stronger association to the original literal meaning of “lingua” being “the tongue”.

Wikipedia’s article on linguistics speaks mainly of language concepts in the abstract: things that apply equally to written and spoken language. It has a small section comparing writing to speech, which says:

Most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken (or signed) language is more fundamental than written language. […] Nonetheless, linguists agree that the study of written language can be worthwhile and valuable.

So consider a hypothetical person; let’s call him “Jim”. Jim can read and understand Ancient Greek texts, and he is an expert translator. Jim may not know the IPA, and he may not even be able to pronounce Ancient Greek words all that well, but he’s definitely the guy you call when you have a piece of written Ancient Greek that you need made readable by Americans.

Can Jim properly be called a “linguist”? Specifically, will other linguists scoff at the idea of a mere translator being called a “linguist”? Or does being a translator by definition make you a type of honest-to-goodness linguist?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Linguists study linguistics, which is the generalized study of language as a phenomenon. Of course, in the course of studying linguistics, one has to study individual languages, but knowledge about individual languages is not the goal of linguistics; rather, the goal of linguistics is to learn about the phenomenon of language as a whole, using facts about specific languages to elucidate generalities about language and relations between languages.

Someone who only studies one language, say Ancient Greek, in depth, to the general exclusion of other languages, would be a scholar of Ancient Greek, but to be a linguist, the focus of your study is on something deeper or more general than the specifics of one particular language.

I don't want to imply, however, that someone who devotes their study most intensely to one language is not a linguist, just that being a linguist is about more than just learning a language.

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I'm sorry but dictionaries disagree with that: someone who studies foreign languages or can speak them very well, or someone who teaches or studies linguistics. That is, the word linguist has two meanings, only one of which is the linguistics one. (Also note Linguist has been with us since 1591, but linguistics only since the 19th century :) – psmears Jul 14 '11 at 8:54
I'm not going to argue with dictionary definitions or even common usage. The OP wanted to know if “other linguists [will] scoff at the idea of a mere translator being called a ‘linguist’?”, and my answer is in many cases “yes”. – nohat Jul 14 '11 at 15:12
Of course, linguists are not generally mean people, so they wouldn't scoff in anyone's face; but you probably won't see a lot of "mere translators" at any LSA conferences. – nohat Jul 14 '11 at 15:27

Jim is definitely a classicist because of his focus on Ancient Greece.

He might be called a philologist if he is mainly interested in the Greek language and its historical context, but doesn't care as much about language in general.

Finally, he could be called a linguist since he studies (a) language in a scholarly manner. Linguistics covers many diverse activities (philosophy, statistics, anthropology, computing, biology, neuroscience, history, ...) and can certainly accommodate Jim too.

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Linguist is a label applied to people who study languages. You can self apply that label if you feel it is appropriate; Jim may or may not consider himself a linguist.

I feel like you are asking if other linguists consider Jim a linguist I would posit that yes, they would. Any marks against Jim would probably focus more on the narrow study of one particular language more than the focus on writing.

(Of course, any real linguist is more than welcome to counter my claim.)

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Also of note, since all of our communication on EL&U is written, we are fairly likely to consider writing a major part of linguistics. – MrHen Jul 14 '11 at 3:20
I'm certainly not a linguist by most people's definition of the word, but I wouldn't say Jim is either. He's a specialist in one particular language. Well, two, actually, since we must assume he's pretty fluent in English too. And that's the point. Most of us here are fluent in at least one language; that doesn't make us linguists. – FumbleFingers Jul 14 '11 at 3:31
@Fumble: I agree with your point, but I felt that it was a technicality that didn't help the OP get the answer to the question that was really being asked. – MrHen Jul 14 '11 at 3:53
I upvoted this, though I think nohat got more to the crux of how I was asking the question incorrectly. I'm commenting mainly to say this, @MrHen: "Question." – 75th Trombone Jul 15 '11 at 8:53

"Lingua" doesn't just mean "tongue, and never did. It also means (and has always also meant) "language".

It is later languages that made a distinction between "tongue" and "language".

English did the same thing as it did with animal names, where it used the word from one language for the animal and the word from another for the meat (e.g. "pig' and "pork").

"Tongue" originates from old Germanic languages, where it was used to mean both "tongue" and 'language".

"Language" derives ultimately from Latin, where it was used to mean both "tongue" and 'language".

We just picked one of them to use to describe the lump of meat in our mouths, and the other to describe our method of communication.

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Not an answer to my question, but excellent information nonetheless. Have an upvote. – 75th Trombone Jul 15 '11 at 8:45

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