Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of becoming a linguist is the fact that as you study, it begins to slowly work its way into all aspects of your life. Although most people view linguistics as “obscure” and have trouble imagining how it could affect one’s life outside of academics, let me assure you, it can.

The different fields within Linguistics, once you’ve begun to study and ponder them, simply will not let you go. The reason for this is simple: When you study language, you’re studying one of the main aspects of human existence, something that we not only use constantly, but that we simply cannot avoid.

If you’ve got a real passion for language and its analysis, you’ll find yourself constantly analyzing the flurries of language that are constantly surrounding us. However, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

502 Error: Linguist temporarily overloaded

My friends have all noticed a certain tendency that I’ve developed since the start of my Linguistics training, affectionately referred to as “the blue screen of linguistic death” or “Linguist moments”.

Periodically, I’ll be carrying on a normal conversation with people, and then suddenly I’ll stop dead in my metaphorical tracks. Often, I’ll start drawing little trees in the air with my finger, or mouth words over and over again under my breath, and always, I’m pretty much catatonic.

The scary part is that really, I seldom notice when I do. I’ll be going along in conversation, and then somebody will make a speech error, make a strange sound or pronunciation, or just say something that “needs” further analysis, and I’ll just dive straight into linguistic analysis. Sometimes it’s a quick little thing (“Oh, she just combined the first two words into one…”), but from time to time, I’ve been known to actually pull out a piece of paper and do actual analysis complete with word-stress grids and IPA transcription. Generally, I’ll figure things out and pop back into the conversation down the way, but sometimes, these little moments will keep me thinking all evening.

Of course, the problem with this is that you can never really explain it to the satisfaction of the people around you. If somebody asks you what you were thinking about, there’s no graceful way to say “Oh, I was just trying to figure out why the stress pattern varies among the acronyms in the organization’s different regions.” Best case scenario, they’ll find it mildly interesting (although not worth the hour of discussion needed to actually explain), and worst case, they’ll just write you off as somebody who really needs a hobby.

However, linguist moments aren’t always a bad thing.

“Oh yes, please go on. Tell me how your dog got his name again?”

One of the most wonderful side-effects of taking phonetics is that any conversation can become fascinating. You see, when people are talking, we generally just listen for meaning, and the actual sounds never cross our minds.

However, with a little bit of phonetics training, we can make ourselves pay attention to the actual sounds and the little details inherent in them. When you sit back and actually listen, it’s shocking how many corners people cut in speech, how many little tiny speech errors we make, and how complex speech really is. So, even though the subject of discussion might be completely uninteresting, you can always find something of interest, even if it might not be that interesting to somebody without a passion in the subject.

It’s not just phonetics, though. Sometimes, little speech errors or unusual constructions will trip me up, just begging for analysis. Sometimes the analysis yields nothing more than the minor satisfaction of figuring it out, but sometimes, it’ll lead you to help solve a major problem in your own linguistic work, or give you a major insight into the way that language works.

“Wait… what?”

Finally, there are times where constantly having one’s ear to the ground for interesting language use is just mildly amusing, but not much else.

For instance, being obsessed with speech and speech sounds, I’m constantly listening to my friends’ speech. I’ve started to pick up on little interesting speech changes that they all make and that nobody notices. For instance, I’ve noticed that one of my friends (also a speaker of Korean) will pretty frequently replace Eth sounds (ð) with unaspirated t’s. It’s completely irrelevant to life in general, and most English speakers don’t even notice the swap (or just think he’s saying “da” instead of “the”), but it brings me a little bit of joy from time to time.

If you’re passionate, the sword isn’t double-edged at all.

When you become passionate about Linguistics, you’ll quickly find your passion spilling into the language use of your every day life. Whether it’s in the form of sudden bouts of near-catatonic linguistic analysis, sudden insights from random bits of conversation, or just subtle-yet-interesting observations about the world, it’s very difficult to leave your work at the office, so to speak.

However, the beauty of it all is that if you’re like me, and are truly passionate about linguistics and language, then it’s not work at all. You’re constantly surrounded by something that you’ve dedicated part of your life to understanding, and you’re always only a step away from your next insight. Sure, the occasional “blue screen of linguistic death” might be embarrassing, but in the end, it’s definitely worth it.

No matter how passionate a mechanic is about their work, they can only really explore their passion when they’re under the hood of a car. One of the true joys of being a linguist is that no matter where you go or what you do, you’re never far from your passion.

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