March 27, 2007

Labels for linguists

The water cooler at Language Log Plaza has been abuzz lately about labels used for disciplines, sub-disciplines, and miscellaneous related terms and perspectives on language (here). Other posts have discussed warning labels (here) and Arnold Zwicky has provided a very nice general principle: labels are not definitions (here). His point seems to fit the efforts of people to assign labels to the areas of linguistics. We think we know what a linguist is but after that things can go downhill very fast. For example, exactly what is a prescriptivist or a descriptivist or a sociolinguist or a forensic linguist? I've never cared for labels because they seem to be too limiting, even when they're well intended and carefully articulated, but the academic world seems to require us to find one to describe ourselves, then to stick with it somehow. Our lively discussions at the water cooler have caused me to recall the labels that have been used to describe my own work.

Over the years I've been assigned a wide range of labels about what I do, none of which seem to fit me very well and few of which have endured very long. I can't speak for my colleagues but here are the labels I've had to live with throughout my checkered career -- in case anyone might want to know this. In a more-or-less historical order, here's how I got labeled and relabeled.

From Dialectologist to Descriptivist to Linguist

My PhD linguistic studies focused largely on American dialectology, so I began my academic career as one. That label didn't seem to matter when I was hired for my first academic position in a small liberal arts college English department, which probably thought it was getting a philologist. My job there was to teach undergrads Old English literature (mostly in translation) along with another course called The Structure of English, a subject thought to help prepare students to become secondary English teachers. Both courses were very marginal to what that English department considered its main work -- teaching literature. There I wore the outsider's label, descriptivist, in contrast with prescriptivist, which characterized the rest of my colleagues in that department. Descriptivist was a pretty negative label to them and they thought my kind of training reeked of cultural relativism, a serious no-no to those people. Quickly I discovered that I could gain no status (like promotion, for example) in that department. The following year the chair filled my schedule with freshman writing courses, since he couldn't figure out what else to do with this descriptivist. By the next year it became clear that he didn't really want to entrust this job to a descriptivist, so he "loaned" me half-time to the anthropology department, where I finally got to teach phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax to some of its majors. In that depatment I was finally called a linguist and the descriptivist label was dropped.

From Linguist to Sociolinguist

Academic existence in those days didn't come easy for faculty members who split their appointments between two different departments. Neither English nor anthropology took responsibility for my promotion or tenure and, sensing this, I moved to a much larger university, where research in linguistics was valued.  There I was called a linguist from the very start. It was at about this time  (the mid 1960s) that linguists began to get interested in language variability that went beyond my traditional training in dialectology. It was time for me to re-tool, this time under a new label, as a sociolinguist. I didn't much like the term, for I agreed with Bill Labov that sociolinguists simply did linguistics on the actual language of a meaningful representation of real people in real-life contexts. But finding a  new label is often practical and useful when it comes to developing new courses, even at large universities. So I was called a sociolinguist.

Subtract Dialectologist

Little did I know that by re-labeling myself in this way I would antagonize the dialectologists I had formerly hung around with. Sociolinguists seemed to reject some of the ways dialectologists did their work and I suddenly became a pariah to my former collegues in regional dialect studies. I found this curious because regional variation still played an important role in sociolinguistics. But they didn't see it that way. It was "us vs. them" in those days, although I'm happy to report that these tensions have eased a bit over time.

My label as sociolinguist endured during my time at this large university and it continued when I left it and accepted a new position at the Center For Applied Linguistics, where I headed a new program in sociolinguistic research. Then, after a couple of years, Georgetown University offered me a full professorship to head a newly created graduate program in sociolinguistics as part of its linguistics major. By now I had become firmly labeled as a sociolinguist. The four linguistics PhD programs at Georgetown were Theoretical, Applied, Computational, and now Sociolinguistics. There was an uncomfortable separation across the four programs and faculty members were labeled by the programs in which they taught. This got a bit dicey when pragmatics developed, since it doesn't fit easily under any of these labels. Same for applied sociolinguistics courses, which were not considered applied linguistics -- for reasons that I still don't understand. Then along came the developing area of discourse analysis, which is also hard to nail to a field label. Several of us sociolinguists were, at the same time, discourse analysts.

Subtract Applied Linguist

Much of my work in sociolinguistics was to apply it to other areas of life in which language variability was important, such as classroom interaction, counseling, medical communication, and law.  I actually believed I was an applied linguist, although nobody else in my department viewed me that way. The field of applied linguistics then (and now, as far as I can tell) was (and still is) dominated by  topics of language learning, teaching, and testing. I didn't do this work, so I was not considered an applied linguist. To me, that's kind of sad because I've actually spent most of my career doing applied linguistics.

Subtract Sociolinguist; Add Forensic Linguist

Eventually I began to turn most of my attention to the way the tool areas of linguistics can be used to help resolve language issues in the legal arena. In fact, I've been doing this for the past 25 years or so. Again, the label problem emerged. As far as I'm concerned, this work relates the whole bag of linguistic tools, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, discourse, variation, language change, lexicography, etc. to whatever legal issues arise. I thought of myself as a linguist who just happened to be working in the context of law. Nevertheless, the term, forensic linguist, began to be used widely to describe this work. I rejected it at first but then, after it became widely used, I reluctantly began to accept this label. So now some people label me as a forensic linguist, although when I testify at trials, I still call myself a linguist.


I suppose labels can be useful but they've given me problems throughout my career. The way I look at it, you start with the core tools of your field, keep them as sharp as possible, and take them where they are needed. The Language Log staff may be a good illustration of this. Those who specialize in syntax, semantics, or phonetics, for example, are certainly not limited to those areas. Because they are primarily linguists, they're perfectly entitled to comment on matters of usage or any other area of language use. Although my own posts are mostly about language where it intersects with law, I can feel free to use my linguistics on other topics as well. Sometimes I act like a sociolinguist, a dialectologist, or a discourse analyst.

I've worked under many labels in this field but above all, I much prefer the broader label, linguist. It allows me freedom to change directions, use my core knowledge, and lets me be creative. Arnold is quite right: labels are not descriptions but linguist seems to be a better description than any of the more restrictive labels I've known.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 27, 2007 02:43 PM