Want to irritate a linguist? Caution: this technique will get you an immediate lecture, and you’re probably not going to find that lecture very interesting. Here’s what you do: ask them how many languages they speak. This will irritate the shit out of us. We will respond something like this: “linguists are not people who speak lots of languages. People who speak lots of languages are called polyglots. Linguists are people who study the phenomenon of language as a system–not necessarily any particular language, but language in general.” For example: my master’s thesis was about vowels and the evolution of the vocal tract. My doctoral dissertation was about using linguistic field work techniques to test software programs.
Personally, if you push me, I will disappoint you by responding “one–English.” I would never say that I “speak” Spanish, although I’m quite at home in it, or that I “speak” French, even though I’m reaching the point where I can use it professionally. This is a guaranteed technique for irritating a linguist! It’s not the only one, though–watch this space for others.
- Le/la polyglotte: polyglot. Note that it can be either grammatically masculine or grammatically feminine. This democratization of the grammatical gender of words for professions that don’t have explicit gender-marking is a hot topic in France right now, particularly in the case of Madame le ministre versus Madame la ministre for government ministers like Ségolène Royal. (By the way: I just Googled her to make sure that I was spelling Royal correctly, and discovered that Google’s autocomplete suggestions are consistent with the hypothesis that people often look for naked pictures of her.) The French Academy declines to endorse the Madame la ministre construction, but nobody listens to the French Academy much anyway.