Why I Study Linguistics

Don’t start your sentences with conjunctions.

Don’t end your sentences with prepositions.

You can’t use “is” with 2nd person pronouns; you must use “are”.

There are so many of these kinds of rules about proper English taught in school. I liked English class for all the reading, but I hated doing composition. I didn’t do as well in my English classes because I didn’t follow these grammar rules. Not in the way I talked at home. Not in the way I talked with friends. And especially not in the way that I texted (because this was when we still used T9). How was I supposed to know all of these grammar rules?

With hallmates at a UGA football game (Go Dawgs!)

I was introduced to linguistics by my, then, undergraduate advisor. I had accepted that I wasn’t passionate about Chemistry, and I had decided to switch my major to International Affairs. (This was because I really liked Model UN in high school.) She looked through my transcript and asked about the foreign language classes I was taking. Since I liked learning foreign languages and did well in science, she recommended that I try a linguistics class.

So, I did. I took the introductory class. One of the first things taught in most introductory linguistics classes is that grammar consists of abstract representations and rules (or, linguistic knowledge) which we use to process and produce language. For the first time, I was being told that all of the rules which policed the English language were designed by people. People agreeing on prescribed standards meant to discern who could be considered a proper speaker of the language from…others. For the first time, I was being told that real grammar was meant to be investigated because its representations and rules are innate, existing in the black box that is our minds. We’re all born with the same set of rules? There are patterns that exist across all languages? And for the first time, I felt like I was being armed with tools to challenge all these proper English rules I was taught in grade school.

At my graduation with my sorors

But then, I was wrong.

I eventually learned that much of linguistic theory was built from this English language spoken by people who didn’t look like, talk like me. Sure—examining other languages helped test existing hypotheses about grammar rules, but I didn’t see hypotheses formed from phenomena observed in other languages (especially the languages I spoke at home). The deeper I went into theory, the more I saw people who looked like, talked like the teachers who tried to teach me the rules of proper English. And I wasn’t going to tell the theorists that their English was wrong or bad. And I wasn’t going to accept the theorists’ proposals as my truth. Was their ideal speaker-hearer (Chomsky, 1965) someone like me?

I doubt it.

And that’s okay. I am my own ideal speaker-hearer. I study linguistics with this in mind.

References

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. MIT Press.

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