Linguisticians are not all linguists

Linguistics is the scientific study of language and languages. The question is: what is the appropriate term for practitioners of linguistics? Answer: linguistician; and the reason why the linguisticians don’t like it is merely the lowest kind of intellectual snobbery and based, moreover, on some criminally incompetent research in what should be their own speciality: linguistics

Almost all of the people who do linguistics seem to call themselves “linguists” but this is actually ambiguous and inappropriate. Indeed, the reason for their dislike of the term “linguistician”, and for their 60 year battle to stop the use of it, is so moronic as to be effectively infantile.

The Oxford English Dictionary First Edition (OED1) indicates that the word “linguist” has been around since the 16th century (Shakespeare Two Gentlemen of Verona no less, in 1591) meaning “a person skilled with languages, a “master of other tongues besides his own”, and from 1641 also “a student of language; a philologist”.

Oxford English Dictionary First Edition definition of linguist

The word linguistics appeared in the mid-19th century meaning “the science of languages, philology” and has now almost completely superseded the term philology which meant more or less the same thing, as it was practised before new methodologies were introduced by certain great figures like Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913) who is often called “the father of linguistics”.

The word linguistician is first reported by OED1 in 1897 meaning “one who is versed in linguistics”.

Oxford English Dictionary First Edition

It has therefore been around almost since the very founding of the modern “science” of linguistics However, those to whom this applies don’t like it, So the obvious questions to ask is clear: why?

But first I should probably answer this more fundamental question: Why is it inappropriate to call every practitioner of linguistics a linguist? Well, when it was still called philology, the study of languages actually entailed learning a lot of languages, and then studying patterns and structures (i) in the vocabulary and grammar of a language over time and/or (ii) comparatively, in different languages, and trying to draw conclusions about whether or not particular languages are related. For many centuries such studies were perhaps a little haphazard, but they no doubt required great knowledge of the languages, including the ability to speak and read and write them, so that people doing such work were linguists in the true, original sense, and thus what they did came to be called linguistics. Such were men like Sir Richard Burton, and Dr James Murray who spent most of his life (over 50 years) toiling at the great Oxford English Dictionary.

Since the name change, and such figures as Saussure and others, linguistics has become so abstract that there are plenty of practitioners of it who busy themselves with syntactical algebras, and computer models, and text databases, who (as far as one can tell) do not speak, whether fluently or at all, any language but their own, and so cannot claim to be linguists — in the original sense — at all.

The result of this rapid and drastic change in what doing linguistics is mainly about, and in the skills its practitioners exercise nowadays, is that there are now two totally different skill sets for which the same term is in use, and I think this is a very bad thing.

When I asked a linguistician (who had just objected to that term in a message to me) what she would call me — someone who speaks French and German fluently and has enough Russian and Spanish to be useful or polite (not to mention a reasonable amount of residual Latin and ancient Greek) — she replied “a polyglot” — a word cited in 1645 (Howell: “a polyglot or good linguist“).

So, I return to the more biting question: why do linguisticians object so strongly to the term itself? The reason turns out to be amazingly silly and ill-founded.

I found the reason in a 1994 issue of the linguistics journal tellingly called The Linguist (it should be called The Linguistician!) — since when the subject apparently hasn’t come up again. The item (on the web at reads:

From: Karl Teeter
Subject: "Linguistician"

I am repelled/repulsed by the term "linguistician", as were Einar Haugen
and many others when it was first proposed in print years ago by Robert
A. Hall -- Haugen pointed out at the time that the only terms of any
currency in English with this suffix were beautician, mortician, and
cosmetician, and did not wish to be associated with them. Neither do I.
There’s nothing wrong with "linguistic scientist", which I often use, in
fact, but surely by now usage guarantees the correctness of
"linguist" in our use. 
Yours, Karl (Karl V. Teeter, 
Professor of Linguistics Emeritus, 
Harvard University)

E. Haugen was as careless and ignorant as this supposedly learned and august Emeritus Professor at Harvard, for not having noticed plenty of other terms ending in -ician for persons engaged in various perfectly respectable branches of study of the form "-ics" (although, having been a physicist as well as a mathematician, I recognize that the conversion rule -ics → -ician is not always followed).

It is actually quite ironic that a simple search in the vocabulary of the English language of examples of -ician would reveal that the vast majority of such words are so respectable, and that a linguistician, above all others, should be the most competent possible professional to conduct such a search correctly, and yet these professors of the subject did it so superficially — that is, incompetently and thus badly!

Look at the following list of prefectly respectable academic examples. On the -icians, I found

Despite all the words in that list, these people have decided en masse that they dislike “linguistician” merely because of a fear — quite clearly founded on pure intellectual snobbery — of being associated by some hearers with supposedly more lowly callings such as “beauticians”! I think this survey of words of this form is enough to demonstrate both that the linguisticians’ dislike of “linguistician” is fatuous, and also how terribly inadequate was the consideration of the existing vocabulary taking that form by those propounding the reasons for their dislike.

If the references I have found are anything to go by, the “years ago” was apparently in the 1930s or so, several decades after "linguistician" was lexicalized in OED1, so Robert A. Hall was not the first to propose the term at all — unless it was he who contributed the usage to the Classical Review in 1897; However, since he is a listed author on at least one title appearing in 2001, if it was he who used the word in 1897 he must now be nearly 120 years old, which is rather unlikely even for a linguistician. Teeter’s assumption that Hall was the originator of the term is another piece of linguistics research of utterly pathetic incompetence by a supposed expert in the subject (especially for an emeritus professor).

Here is some text from the book Beginning Linguistics by Laurie Bauer:
Text from Beginning Linguistics by Laurie Bauer page 3

In conclusion, there is absolutely no good reason not to accept the term “linguistician“, and no good reason to have hi-jacked the term “linguist”. My resistance to this hi-jack is increased by the thought that by it linguisticians who are not in fact polyglots will tend to give other people, notably the majority with no particular knowledge of language except their mother tongue, the misleading impression that they are polyglot in cases where they are not. Also, there is a sort of undercurrent to “polyglot” hinting at Cairo urchins who can beg for coins in ten languages, or indeed of Zoltan Karpathy, the student of Professor Henry Higgins, a figure rather of fun, speaking umpteen languages (he claims 32) but with nothing interesting to say in any of them — Higgins says “a blaggard who uses the science of speech more to blackmail and swindle than teach... ”

Indeed, the assertion of the linguisticians that we should all use the term “polyglot” for the people for whom the proper term is the correctly applied term “linguist” is an abuse in itself, because the meaning of the Greek term is clear from its etymology: “poly” means “many”, and a “polyglot” is somebody who knows many languages. If a person is fluent just in their own language and in one language foreign to them, such as an English person fluent in French, who works as a translator and interpreter between English and French as perhaps a freelance or in a full time job maybe at the European Union or the United Nations doing simultaneous translations of parliamentary or General Assembly sessions, into a microphone in a sound-proof room, that person is a professional linguist, but by no means a “polyglot” because two languages can hardly be described as “many”. So once again the assertion of the linguisticians as to the correct term to use with a given meaning is fatally flawed semantically, etymologically and hence linguistically. They are either incompetent or lying to constantly assert this.

Therefore I say this:

Use the term linguistician for a person who does linguistics to avoid the ambiguity. Do not allow yourself to be dictated to by the small-minded pratitioners of this academic subject who have got it into their heads that the correct, original term for their specialism is somehow undignified because it (erroneously) reminds them of certain job titles which their academic snobbery has led them to dislike .

It is almost staggeringly inept of the linguisticians to object so strenuously, as they always do, to my insistence that they are most correctly to be described as linguisticians.