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Linguistics

Overview

What happens when language studies drink the scientific Kool-Aid—a.k.a., living the language-nerd dream.

Description

In the big, happy family of academic disciplines, linguistics is the misunderstood middle child…who never gets called on in class. Yep, the field of linguistics is often misrepresented, overlooked, and understudied, but that's probably because it's new.

Like, so new that the Albert Einstein of linguistics is still alive and kickin' at MIT.

So we understand if you've never considered majoring in linguistics before. Let's start with a clean slate, then—a tabula rasa, if you will.

First, don't believe the Hollywood hype. Modern linguists don't give a hoot about "proper" pronunciation (we're looking at you, Henry Higgins).

Second, don't even get linguists started on those Latin-based grammar rules. Splitting infinitives, for example? Feh. Linguists care more about splitting atoms. Well, kind of. Not really. Whatever, you know what we mean.

Also, hate to burst your bubble, but linguists don't necessarily know how to speak a bunch of different languages. Sorry.

"Cut to the chase, Shmoop. What in the academic world is linguistics, then?" Okay, okay. Truth is, modern linguistics covers a lot of different areas of study. But its primary aims are to: systematically describe the underlying structure(s) of language(s), and explicate how we derive meaning from those structures.

Here, "meaning" can refer to the meaning of individual words or sentences, or the social inferences we draw from the way people talk. Like, what image forms in your head when a voice comes onto the radio and you think, "Man, that lovely lady really sounds like a Southern Belle…"?

Linguists might focus on the structure or meaning of language at lots of levels, from phonetics and phonology (the studies of individual sounds and their interactions) on up to syntax. Linguistic theory and the analytic methods used in linguistics overlap with the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, namely: philosophy, psychology, computer science/engineering, biology, history, sociology, anthropology, and even physics.

Hard to believe, we know.

Then again, the phenomenon of language is distinctly human. Naturally, it would be involved in everything we do, right? And it's pretty much why we're at the top of the food chain, so thank you, evolution, for our fancy-schmancy vocal anatomy. We owe you one. But seriously, if apes ever learned language, we'd totally be screwed.

Depending on the college, linguistics majors can focus on any of the aforementioned fields. So if you're interested in dialects and language politics, you probably shouldn't go to a college whose linguistics department worships the syntax gods. You wouldn't be happy…you'd be a heretic.

New York University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, The Ohio State University, and others have great learning and research opportunities for those social-minded linguists.

As with most majors, going to grad school will open more doors for you, career-wise. Another common misconception about the linguistics major is that it's limiting. Not true. There are plenty of options for linguistics majors in all kinds of job fields, from speech data analysts at Google to copy-writing for your favorite Madmen-style ad company.

So…how's that tabula lookin' now?

Famous People who majored in Linguistics

  • Noam Chomsky, father of modern linguistics
  • J.R.R. Tolkien (philology)
  • Marc Okrand, inventor of Klingon
  • Peter Ladefoged, linguistic consultant on My Fair Lady
  • Uhura, from Star Trek

Percentage of US students who major in Linguistics:

0.1%

Stats obtained from this source.