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Why Linguistics Matter :: Science :: Features :: Linguistics :: Paste

There is a perceived rivalry within science—ask an engineer and they will say that user experience folk aren’t doing “real” science. Science tends to be thought of as only things like chemistry (and particular kinds, at that), biology, physics—science is equations on a chalkboard or beakers full of mysterious liquids. Especially in popular media, which now includes technology—we have Java or C treated similarly to the equations, we have programming and electric engineering to make robots do what we want.

Popular media does includes some examples of the scientific study of language. Part of the problem, however, is that these characters’ specialties tend to be seen as a general “soft” character—more so in the case of a male character—than an action hero or respected academic. As such, these characters get combined with other tropes, but as representations, these characters are very powerful. While I confess I had training in sociolinguistics for my Master’s degree, due to specializing in online language usage, I am biased—but only in the same sense as an engineer defends their own choice of discipline, or a fan talks about the merits of Star Wars and Star Trek.

Speaking of Star Trek, let’s begin.

Who are these characters specializing in language in media? And what do I mean by the “scientific study of language?”

Uhura: “Xenolinguistics. You have no idea what that means.”

Kirk: “The study of alien languages. Morphology, phonology, syntax…”

Nyota Uhura is an example of what a xenolinguistic specialist may look like—however, again, some of her functions seem to be conflated with her being able to translate or interpret. But in the Star Trek (2008) film, we get the dialogue above: Kirk correctly and succinctly defines the study of linguistics, only as applied to languages not used on Earth. Uhura becomes part of the bridge crew due to not only being able to interpret between different languages, but also to recognize different dialects of the same language and due to her skills in pattern recognition. The fact that Uhura is on the bridge crew of the USS Enterprise throughout Star Trek’s seminal run is not only a nod to how important communication was seen, but also noting that while Uhura’s capacity in linguistics is not engineering or biology, it is a field of study worthy of any commanding officer of the United Federation of Planets.

Linguistics can be more like pattern recognition than just “speaking another language”—while there is anecdotal overlap between people who study linguistics and people who know multiple languages (or multiple dialects), a person who knows multiple languages may not necessarily be a linguist. Linguists recognize the continuing interplay between sounds and meaning, and seek to analyze both in relation to each other. Morphology, for example, is the sub-field of the formation and composition of sounds. Stylistics is the study of…

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