Friday, June 15, 2007

"Philologist" and other monikers

The last post was of course tongue in cheek — at least about what a 'linguist' is, not about the death of Austria's most notorious Nazi. And the stream of comments was unexpected. But it raises a real question: What should people who study the structure of language (in a broad sense) be called?

First, to philology: Let's leave aside the humorous definitions, like "the art of reading slowly", which has been attributed to Calvert Watkins (for what I've always assumed was the inspiration for that comment, see the quote here) or dismissive ones like Hilfswissenschaft 'helping science', used by some German scholars.

Merriam-Webster has a pretty interesting definition:
1 : the study of literature and of disciplines relevant to literature or to language as used in literature
2 a : LINGUISTICS; especially: historical and comparative linguistics b : the study of human speech especially as the vehicle of literature and as a field of study that sheds light on cultural history.
Neither of these comes very close to how I think most historical linguists and medievalists use the term today, which is often more like "the study of written texts", with some additional sense that there's some kind of focus on language. Mountains have been written about this and I'm not goingg to review it or resolve it, surely. Hans Henrich Hock, in his Principles of Historical Linguistics (2nd edition, 1991:3-5), calls philology "a related branch of inquiry into the history of languages", and writes:
… although philology can be given short shrift in a book like this which is concerned with the linguistics of language change, it should be noted that practicing historical linguistics usually cannot divorce themselves from philological work: Quite frequently new insights can be gained only from a better interpretation of text data.
Certainly if we understand philology as defined above, for many historical linguists it provides the empirical base we work from. Most of us have come to appreciate the need for a better empirical base, so most of us do plenty of philological work — building databases, for example.

Still, the M-W tradition lives on in many places. The Society for Germanic Linguistics was, until a decade or so ago, the Society for Germanic Philology. (The transition was without real controversy that I know of.) Non-linguists in the German Dept here on campus have only recently made the switch away from 'philologist' in talking about their colleagues who study language.

But what should we be called? A couple of weeks ago, a historian (from the southern hemisphere) referred to people in our field as "linguisticians" and you hear that around. Yeah,
tonguewit is clever, but I see bad things lurking.

In a reasonably serious conversation, a colleague has suggested language engineer, since it (1) gets linguists as far as possible from the humanities (= death in the current academy) and (2) sounds like money.

I'll stick with linguist for now.


Anonymous said...

Language engineer sounds like a trumped-up version of what L.L. Zamenhof did in addition to his ocular work. As for "philologist", it has a sort of 19th century ring to my ears that is far too quaint for the work encompassed by linguist today. How about language scientist?

Anonymous said...

Ha! Just googled "language scientist" and got a few hits, one of which was an old listserv posting about "linguist" in different languages, giving this tidbit:

In Esperanto, which of course is sociolinguistically more subject to
intentional manipulation and amateur language engineering than
unplanned languages, I have seen "lingvisto" used in both senses,
'language scientist' and 'polyglot'. Its morphology is
lingv ist o
language professional, practitioner noun (nom.sing.)
and one might say that the ambiguity of the word is to be expected
from the generality of the suffix "-ist".
I have occasionally seen "lingvologo" used for the 'language
scientist' sense. The suffix here is the semi-irregular "-(o)log-o",
meaning 'scientist of', corresponding to e.g. French "-(o)logue".

That covers everything just discussed, 'linguist', 'language engineering', Esperanto. Maybe there could be an English form analogous to the Esperanto 'lingvologo': Langlogist. Too bad English needs that -ist there.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh yeah, language scientist is probably viable ... don't know why I didn't think of that yesterday. I'm with you on the Zamenhofian angle on language engineer.

Ollock said...

I'm in agreement with the sentiments about language engineer. Being involved in the conlanging (language construction) community, I know of several types of conlangers that could easily take that moniker better than a linguist could, especially those who make engelangs (engineered languages) and loglangs (logical languages).

Mr. Verb said...

And language scientist wouldn't be confusing for those folks.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Linguist is fine - just stop complaining about the other meaning of it being applied to us.

Of course, I was a linguist in the army, so I'm both. And biased.

On the other hand, the Department of Defense is pushing for "language analyst" for their linguists, so maybe one source of the confusion will go away?

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, I hope I didn't complain or sound like I was complaining -- I think I said I hadn't gotten used to the military use. "Language analyst" is fine. I'm still thinking language scientist sound good.

Part of the actual substance of the issue is that most people who are in the academic field of linguistics also are or have been linguists in other senses professionally -- language specialists of various sorts.