Saturday, December 18, 2010


One very useful perk of being in college is the set of automatic conversation starters that accompany the territory—those questions about where you lived, what your major was, and how classes were going. They were perfect for carrying on intelligent and benign conversation with total strangers.

Except my major. It was more akin to a sniper rifle, taking out innocent conversation starters with a single word: linguistics.

I remember one conversation vividly, which followed the typical pattern: a young man decked in a gray college sweatshirt was sitting across from me on the campus shuttle. He amiably struck forward with what he thought was Safe.

“What’s your major?”

Upon my answer, I watched his face go blank, as if he hadn’t had his morning coffee. But, he was braver than most, and hesitantly asked, “What’s linguistics?”

After I explained that it had to do with languages, his eyes lit up. “Oh! How many languages do you speak?!” It was a common question, but it missed the point, and I tried to explain that I studied the mechanics of all languages. His eyes clouded back over. “What would you ever do with that?”

Ironically, by talking to me, he had answered his own question—each person uses linguistics every day without even knowing it.

But what is linguistics, actually?

According to the handy, linguistics is “the science of language.” Linguistics is, perhaps, the most mathematical and logical of the humanities. It breaks down language into its parts and examines how we can possibly communicate with each other, much less write novels worthy of the Pulitzer prize.

Different areas of study include:
You never knew... but through linguistics you can find out!

•    Phonetics—the sounds of the world (you know the song by George and Ira Gershwin with the lyrics,  “I say toe-may-toe, you say toe-mah-toe”)

•    Sociology—the social implications of language, such as why people in Wisconsin say “bubbler” while Minnesotans say “drinking fountain.”

•    Morphology—the grammatical formation of the words themselves (ever wonder why we have goose-geese but not moose-meese?)

•    Syntax—how the sentence fits together (that old rule of never ending a sentence in a preposition is explained here)

•    Semantics—the meaning of words (just think of all the meanings of the word like?)

•    Pragmatics—the extra markers of language, such how a child knows that when her mom says “did you take out the garbage?” the mother is not just asking for information…

•    Historical—watching the effects of time and change in language (or why, pray tell, thee doth not spake like Shakespeare did )

Bible translation is one of many applications for this fascinating field. Throughout my own study of it, I have found it to be a beautiful reflection of our God.

After all, in the beginning was the Word. In the beginning, God spoke.

And linguistics was created.