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Creating a Franken-linguist


Now, I”ve got absolutely no idea how this popped into my head this week¹, but suppose you could create the perfect linguist, what would his/her skills be? Would all major subsets of linguistic theory and application need to be covered, or could the perfect linguist just focus on one particular area of strength? Should he/she be a jack of all trades or a master of one?

Now, I don’t think I would count myself as a fully-fledged linguist (there appears to be some division between ‘sociolinguists’ and ‘linguists’ as far as I can tell), so when I read thesis titles like ‘English Stress Preservation and Stratal Optimality Theory‘ (Collie 2008), I break out into a cold sweat. Of course, I’ve heard about Optimality Theory and I know about word stress, but ‘Stratal Theory’? ‘Intrinsic serialism’? Not a clue. Of course, I could go ahead and read up on them, particularly if such work was important to my own research interests, but as a (socio)linguist, I sometimes feel like ‘should I already know what that is all about?’

My undergraduate training wasn’t especially focused on phonological theory, grammatical theory or straight-up linguistic theory. It was also more about breadth of study rather than depth, covering everything from the Great Vowel Shift to Labov’s NYC study. Of course, since my MA, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about sociolinguistic work (since that’s what I enjoyed the most as a UG), perhaps to the detriment of levelling up my other linguist-skills. If I could ‘re-roll’, I think I’d like to have spent more time on proper linguistic theory, and I’m going to make a concerted effort over the next couple of years to read up on ‘linguistic’ without the ‘socio-‘ bit.

But to go back to my opening point, what should the perfect linguist look like? Here’s my own thoughts (and not in any sort of order of importance):

  1. Strong knowledge of phonological and phonetic issues (and be able to identify them in speech).
  2. Excellent descriptive grammatical ability (including morphosyntax etc).
  3. Ability to use a range of analytical software (PRAAT, R, NVIVO etc).
  4. Can use a range of methodological approaches (e.g. corpus data, experimental data, conversations etc).
  5. Knowledge of historical development of English (or their language of focus).
  6. Knowledge of language acquisition and related issues.

Of course, I’m positive there are things I’m missing here, so if there are, please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section.

Related to this, what books/articles/chapters do you think any self-respecting linguist should have read? My own contribution would be Labov’s Principles of Linguistic Change, but I’d be interested in hearing about other works that people think are important.

Oh, and lastly, feeling tons better today. Stomach was still a bit dodgy on Wednesday – Friday, and I thought I was going to pass out during my lecture on Thursday morning (was saved in my seminar teaching by my awesome colleague Dr Ursula Lutzky who let my classes sit in with her own group), but feeling about 95% today. Hopefully by Monday, I’ll be back up to 100%.

The Social Linguist

1. Ok, I’ve got one theory about why I’ve thought about this idea this week. I’ve been playing some Skyrim (as part of my recovery strategy, obviously), and in it, you can create a bespoke character with various skills and abilities. Some characters are stronger that others, and some are just not particularly effective in the game (for example, you can play a stealing, crafty pickpocket who shuns direct fighting, but you won’t make it very far through the game with this style). In my sickness-addled state this week, I’ve basically managed to meld Skyrim with work, hence the post.

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  1. adph
    December 5, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    You seem to have given people the opportunity to do a “best of” list and no one has responded. Maybe I spend too much time on IMDB…

    Language in the Inner City (for the final two chapters)

    Brown and Levinson’s “Politeness…”

    Halliday’s “Introduction to functional grammar”

    Fairly obvious I suppose but they’re the three that, as an undergrad/postgrad, I’ve actually felt like I needed to buy (rather than borrow). And as go-to reference books, despite their faults:

    Allan Bell “Language in the news media”

    Deborah Schiffrin “Discourse markers”

    • adph
      December 5, 2011 at 9:22 pm

      PS – I notice that you’ve posted a link to the “representation of Birmingham gangs” and I’d be interested to look at/read that but the link is down. (Incidentally, although sort of connected, what do you reckon the chances are of The Guardian allowing public access to the narrative accounts of the riots? They’re “reading the riots” is really interesting and theyre really open about the methodology but I would hope that some of the data would be publically available – I suppose there are ethical issues there though)

  2. December 5, 2011 at 9:27 pm

    Hmmm, not sure what’s going on, it’s working for me… Try http://prezi.com/ew7j9oyaluzd/guns-gangs-and-babymothers-representations-of-birmingham-gangs/.

    Read about the guardian thing, but I can’t imagine they’ll release the dataset any time soon. I hope they would though, in the interests of transparency and it potentially being a really interesting dataset.

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