Why Linguistics?

This is a question I’ve been dealing with ever since I went down this academic path, and one that I think I will continue to grapple with for a long time: what is the point of studying linguistics?

Part of the reason I feel like I have to justify this is that my culture, reflected in my upbringing, favours “hard” sciences as noble fields—medicine, physics—or fields with obvious practical applications—software engineering, finance. But this question also arises in my mind because of my own misgivings about linguistics, which seems as impractical a field as can be, divorced from the suffering of people or the problems of the world. What good can I do as a linguist?

I’d like to point out that studying languages is different from studying language. The study of individual languages needs a different set of justifications than the ones I’m thinking of here, and those will depend on the languages in question too. Also, studying the idea of language is different from studying the use of language; the latter, I presume, means rhetoric or literary criticism, which are on another level of abstraction than what I am talking about: the human capacity for language and the systems that underlies all human languages which are the subject matter of linguistics.

I don’t have any concrete answers yet nor have I put in a lifetime of thought into this issue, so I don’t discount the experiences of other, wiser linguists. I’m only speaking for myself.

Inherent value of language

Language is a system that is an important part of our existence as human beings. Everything we do is predicated on a systematic means of communication (and, note, that doesn’t have to be a specific language or dialect—there are many forms that our communication takes). I think it is not unreasonable to say that there is some kind of inherent intellectual value in studying the important systems that underlie human existence.

It’s like mathematics. Math is a totally human-devised construct, and we expand on it while being constrained by its rules. It is, at its foundation, an abstract system that has no basis in reality—but this set of rules turns out to be incredibly useful in fields that no one would expect it to have value in, from physics to chemistry to economics and social science (and, indeed, linguistics).

Language, too, also a human-devised abstract construct, except it seems to have arisen in a far less conscious, but no less systematic, manner. And yet, no matter who you are, rich or poor, young or old, online or offline, you deal with language almost every moment of your entire life, even just to think to yourself. It’s so pervasive—why shouldn’t we study language? Seems like we’d be ignoring a huge part of our lives.

What are the ends of that intellectual value inherent in the study of language? I suppose better understanding our world, whether that is towards understanding the mind as a computation device (cognitive science), the creation of human-like computation devices (artificial intelligence and computer science), or understanding how our experience is shaped by language (psychology). Pushing into the social sciences, language, and languages, are an important part of the narratives investigated by historical studies and underpin how communities form and interact. And things like grammar, information encoding, etc. all underlie theories of computation and logic which are neat mathematical ideas in themselves.

For a physicist, a mathematician, or a computer scientist, this is what makes language interesting.

Language and culture

As an Indian immigrant to the United States, the value of language as a part of my cultural heritage is immense. It was probably the main reason I was drawn to linguistics: my desire to really learn Hindi in the later part of my childhood was the first time I came to appreciate a language as something bigger than a class at school. Whole literatures unsealed, millennia-long traditions, a family that I was suddenly much closer to—all outcomes of my learning Hindi.

For a linguist, studying the immense diversity of the world’s languages is a really wonderful experience. The ways that we express ourselves are so different and yet there is some universality of meaning in every language. There is, given enough time and patience by the listener, nothing one can say in English that one also cannot say in Hindi, in Kashmiri, in Zhuang, or in Cree. But, the ways we say things in different languages are inextricably tied to the culture of that language—languages do not grow in a vacuum. We’ll find meaningful differences for the same meanings across languages. Isn’t that crazy to think about? Crazy enough to be worth studying I think.

But that is from the perspective of the typologist, investigating diversity; not necessarily something you need to be seeped in a culture to do. From the perspective of a field linguist or a language activist though, there is some inherent value in the language at hand. Maybe it’s not spoken much anymore. Maybe there is a long oral tradition at risk of dying out or one that is worth disseminating to the rest of the world. Maybe there are wondrous unique qualities of the language that will help us better understand or shape models of the human capacity of language. Every language has some kind of value to someone, or we’d all be speaking a single language by now.

I’ve had this sort of experience doing a small fieldwork project on Kholosi, a very small Indo-Aryan language of southwest Iran. It started out as an interesting project, but talking to my language contact made me realise how much language means to its users. There are songs and stories that would lose their lustre or nuance if he had to translate them to Persian or English.

For a humanist or philosopher, perhaps this is the most compelling reason to study language.

What now?

If you’re interested in majoring in linguistics as an undergrad, I really suggest looking at the department websites of the universities you’re applying to in order to get a sense of what they work on. Many departments have a “why linguistics?” page. There’s also Linguistic Society of America’s pamphlet on the topic.

When I was going through the admissions process, I had narrowed my options down to Georgetown and Duke. Duke has a much stronger engineering department, which was good for my ambitions in computer science (my other major). But their Linguistics department was not as fleshed out as Georgetown’s, and computational linguistics research was happening in their Electrical Engineering department, meaning things like parsing unstructured data, machine learning algorithms, etc. were of more importance to them than understanding language for itself (which is what compling at Georgetown worked towards). Ultimately, my intellectual interests were toward understanding how language fundamentally works, not how to make use of language. That’s why I picked Georgetown.