Non-linguists often accuse linguists of maintaining that “any sort of language is equally good”, particularly when we decline to join them in their passionate campaigns against whatever it is that has irked them. But this is misguided. Individual linguists have their own ideas about what constitutes good or appropriate usage in English, just like anybody else — except that the linguists’ views are usually far better informed than other people’s. But there is a big difference between expressing opinions and finding out what the facts are, and it is finding the facts that is the primary task of a linguist. Nobody would attack a botanist merely because that botanist was interested in finding out what plants are like, instead of creating beautiful gardens.
R.L. Trask, Introducing Linguistics (2000)
A nice botany analogy to add to the cat show analogy, the geology and biology analogies, the car analogy, and the brain surgeon analogy.
This post reminded me of the analogy I often use when trying to explain what a linguist does, and how it’s different to the role of a language learning. I often use a sports broadcaster analogy.
Using my knowledge of linguistics and observation I can describe phenomena that i can’t necessarily perform self. Just like Eddie McGuire taking about a spectacular mark (for Aussie rules football fans), or a basketball commentator can describe what went wrong on the way to a layup, I can tell you about complex grammatical phenomena that I might not be able to produce in Kagate and Yolmo. I know the rules, and the type of linguistic analysis I’m interested in is how each player in the game uses these rule (which is why I like this analogy over others).
Georgia and I were talking about this, and she said that there’s a problem with this, in that there’s a believe in some areas of broadcasting that you need to have played competitive sport to be able to talk about it - it’s the argument most often brought forth when women are harassed for commentating men’s sport. There is analogy between this and theories of language description. Some linguists argue that in order to best describe the phenomena you are talking about you should be able to speak the language - you should know what it feels like to have skin in the game. Dan Everett advocates for fieldwork to be done entirely monolingually - check out this video demonstrate from last year’s LSA Lingstitute.