The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #4 July / August 2013
Letter From The Editor
Linguist or Polyglot
by Erik Zidowecki
July / August 2013 | 

We refer to Parrot Time as covering "languages, linguistics and culture". Note how both language and linguistics are separated out, and not just referred to by a single word. That is because they are different.

It seems that for most of the world, the term "linguist" gets applied to anyone that speaks another language. Probably most of you that are reading this and have learned another language have been called a linguist by someone at some point in your lives. Did you correct this? If so, what term did you use to define your language knowledge.

A linguist is, by definition, a person who studies linguistics, and linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Some who learn languages might say they study languages, but it is not the same. Linguistics covers the nuts and bolts of a language. It looks at the way languages evolve, how they affect the way we think, and their origins. Studying linguistics means examining syntax, morphology, comparative grammar and phonetics. A linguist can even work with computer programming and speech recognition, etymologies, psychology, neurology and much more. They will also work with recording dying languages so as to preserve the knowledge of them.

A person that learns languages, however, will learn the vocabulary, grammar, and some other linguistic aspects of a single language, but they aren't really studying the way the language is put together. Its a bit like the difference between the physicist who works in the lab, examining the movement of electrons, as compared to the physics student that learns the formulas and equations to calculate occurrences in the natural world. They are both dealing with physics, but one is dissecting while the other is applying.

So if a person who learns languages shouldn't be called a linguist, what should they be called. If a person knows a single language, they are deemed monolingual. One that knows two is bilingual and one that knows three is trilingual. But those words describe the person's language capability, not that they are a person that knows other languages. No ones says "I'm a bilingual", but they might say "I am bilingual".

The term that has come into usage in the past few decades is polyglot (from Greek poly, many + glotta, language). While this should represent someone who speaks several languages, it has come to mean anyone speaking more than one.

Now, this doesn't mean that the two groups are mutually exclusive. A linguist might know a couple of languages, and a polyglot might work with components of linguistics as well. But not all linguists are polyglots, nor are all polyglots are linguists.

It is for this reason that Parrot Time makes sure to use both "languages" and "linguistics" as two different areas it covers. Biographies on linguists with information on what their theories were might not interest a person who is learning, say, a Romance language, but an article on endangered romance languages might. The two areas might even overlap in an article. An article on a particular language might discuss the vocabulary and grammar as well as the way these have evolved and how the language relates to others in its language family.

So welcome, whether you are a polyglot, linguist, both, or even neither. We hope you enjoy reading the magazine and we welcome your contributions!

Erik Zidowecki

Letter From the Editor
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Pictish stone

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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