Definition and Examples of Linguists

Ferdinand de Saussure
(Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

A linguist is a specialist in linguistics--that is, the study of language. Also known as a linguistic scientist or a linguistician.

Linguists examine the structures of languages and the principles that underlie those structures. They study human speech as well as written documents. Linguists are not necessarily polyglots (i.e., people who speak many different languages).

Examples and Observations

  • "Some believe that a linguist is a person who speaks several languages fluently. Others believe that linguists are language experts who can help you decide whether it is better to say 'It is I' or 'It is me.' Yet it is quite possible to be a professional linguist (and an excellent one at that) without having taught a single language class, without having interpreted at the UN, and without speaking any more than one language.
    "What is linguistics, then? Fundamentally, the field is concerned with the nature of language and (linguistic) communication."
    (Adrian Akmajian, Richard Demerts, Ann Farmer, and Robert Harnish, Linguistics: An Introduction to Language and Communication. MIT Press, 2001)
  • Subfields of Linguistics
    - "Linguists spend their time studying what language is and what it does. Different linguists study language in different ways. Some study the design features that the grammars of all the world's languages share. Some study the differences among languages. Some linguists focus on structure, others on meaning. Some study language in the head, some study language in society."
    (James Paul Gee, Literacy and Education. Routledge, 2015)
    - "Linguists study many facets of language: how sounds are produced and heard in physical acts of speech, conversational interaction, the different uses of language by men and women and different social classes, the relation of language to the functions of the brain and memory, how languages develop and change, and the uses of language by machines to store and reproduce language."
    (William Whitla, The English Handbook. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)
  • Linguists as Scientists
    - "Like a biologist studying the structure of cells, a linguist studies the structure of language: how speakers create meaning through combinations of sounds, words, and sentences that ultimately result in texts--extended stretches of language (e.g. a conversation between friends, a speech, an article in a newspaper). Like other scientists, linguists examine their subject matter--language--objectively. They are not interested in evaluating 'good' versus 'bad' uses of language, in much the same manner that a biologist does not examine cells with the goal of determining which are 'pretty' and which are 'ugly.'"
    (Charles F. Meyer, Introducing English Linguistics. Cambridge University Press, 2010)
    - "The important point to remember about the complex sets of relationships and rules known as phonology, syntax, and semantics is that they are all involved in the modern linguist's approach to describing the grammar of a language."
    (Marian R. Whitehead, Language & Literacy in the Early Years 0-7. Sage, 2010)
  • Ferdinand de Saussure on the System of a Language
    "The pioneer linguist Ferdinand de Saussure criticized scholars who studied the history of a part of a language, dissociated from the whole to which it belongs. He insisted that linguists should study the complete system of a language at some point in time, and then examine how the entire system changes over time. Saussure's pupil Antoine Meillet (1926: 16) is responsible for the aphorism: 'une langue constitue un système complexe de moyens d'expression, système où tout se tient' ('a language makes up a complex system of means of expression, a system in which everything holds together'). Scientific linguistics who produce comprehensive grammars of languages naturally follow this tenet. (Proponents of formal theories, who look at isolated bits of language for some particular issue, naturally contravene this fundamental principle.)"
    (R. M. W. Dixon, Basic Linguistic Theory Volume 1: Methodology. Oxford University Press, 2009)

Pronunciation: LING-gwist

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Linguists." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definition and Examples of Linguists. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Linguists." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 6, 2023).