Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Given the (relatively) scientific and academic nature of most of my more recent posts, and, for those who know me personally, my somewhat skeptical nature, people often ask me why my blog is titled “Notes from a Linguistic Mystic”.

The pseudonym “The Linguistic Mystic” arose during a conversation while I was taking one of my first graduate classes in Linguistics, ~2005 (well before the Shpongle track came out). I was chatting with a few of my colleagues about an interesting construction in the language we were examining (I don’t recall the specific structure, but the language was Ewe, pronounced [eβe]). During the course of the discussion, I mentioned something about “I wonder what effect that way of speaking has on speakers’ perceptions of the world”, a common question given my affinity for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at the time.

This, for whatever reason, set one of my colleagues into a small anti-linguistic-relativity tirade, eventually culminating in something like “Sometimes a language’s structure is just a structure, nothing more! You know what you are? You’re a damned linguistic mystic!”

At the time, it was just a cool sounding name which I happened to use on this blog, but as I’ve gotten deeper into linguistics, it’s made more and more sense. Language, despite our best efforts, is almost never cut-and-dry. It’s easy to come up with explanations that make sense, but when you look more closely, it’s almost always more complicated than your initial explanation can handle, and you can always go deeper. Speech perception, especially working with vowels, interests me so much because when you look at it with enough detail, it seems like magic that it ever works at all.

So, I may not hum incantations in front of IPA vowel charts, cast circles before working on text analysis, or sacrifice vowels to the gods of Speech Perception. But I do think that the reason I love my work so much is that I get to see, embrace, and explore the magic that’s already present in speech, language, and communication.

I think that’s enough to earn the title. And if you disagree, I’ll turn you into somebody who can transcribe the word “Toad”.

Scary, huh?


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