Transversing the Linguistic Bridge

This post was written by Chris Rogers, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.


In my experience, language is a bridge (or link) between so many things. For example, it is a communicative bridge between a speaker and a hearer (or two signers); it is a bridge between generations as parents pass on a functional linguistic system to their children; it is a bridge between a society and an individual’s identity; and it is a bridge between prescribed norms and (sometimes) subversive changes to those norms. This is one of the reasons that language fascinates me so much, it is a changing multifunctional system that is unique for every individual and community.

Linguistics, the scientific and systematic study of language, is a social science, or at least that was what was decided in the 19th century (Sampson 1980: 17). At the time, findings in physics, biology and other natural sciences were highly influential on global scholarship, and every academic discipline took their pulse based on how they aligned to what was termed (in German) Naturwissenschaften or Geisteswissenschaften—later referred to as natural sciences or arts and humanities. Many linguists at the time (under various names back then, including neogrammarian, philologer, linguist, lexicographer, and others), struggled with how to categorize their own young discipline. Some felt it belonged in the humanities (after all, they were studying human language) and they focused on the subjective interpretation of language as a representation of individual and community identity; while others felt it belonged in the natural sciences and then later in the social sciences (after all, they were studying the science of language), and they focused on the objective systems language users employed or created to communicate in a variety of circumstances. Perhaps this division, once so important in the landscape of scholarship, is not as categorical as it was once thought to be, but in my experience, it is not uncommon for linguists to place their research in the social sciences (sometimes closely aligned with psychology, neuroscience, sociology, or anthropology).

I admit that with my interest in language documentation, description, and discovery of implications for the linguistic systems of the world’s languages using a variety of scientific methods, I see myself more as a social scientist than a humanist. (You can see my projects on my website.) So, what am I doing as a fellow of the Humanities Center and writing a blog on a humanities website? (Down with the usurpers and the imposters!) Well, it appears that not only is language a bridge but so is the discipline of linguistics, nevertheless it is either in disrepair or is misused. I want to point out how, as a social scientist, linguistics is one essential component of my meaningful connection to the humanities.

As a discipline, linguistics is misunderstood. Linguistics is not about learning languages nor about translation and/or interpretation of one language into another. Rather, linguistics is about the methods of collecting, analyzing, and explaining the language systems of the world. The ultimate outcome of that discipline is a greater understanding of these systems (often referred to in the discipline as a language’s grammar) rather than any measurable proficiency in any individual language. This makes asking a linguist, “How many languages do you speak?” or “What is the best way to learn another language?” like asking a chef, “How many carrots do you eat?” or “What is the best way to cook?” as a way to evaluate their expertise in the kitchen. (A better question for linguists would be, “What features of language systems do you think about?”) Of course, the attention linguists pay to linguistic systems can be inferentially leveraged as a way to deepen understanding of language pedagogy, literature, linguistic ecosystems, language communities, and individual language users (among other things). The language systems we use and the way they connect to our beliefs, cultural behaviors, and creativity through language are only available to us based first on unbiased systematic observations that can then be used as evidence for a series of inferences about these systems and connections. This is the linguistic bridge; a scholarly connection between language systems and every use we can put language to—bridge between the humanities and the social sciences.

Let me describe what this bridge “looks” like in practice, with unashamed attention on my own scholarly interests, though acknowledging that this may not be representative of others’ work. (Perhaps a rainbow bridge would be a better metaphor to capture the great variation with which linguists approach their work.)

I regularly conduct research on languages that normally don’t get a lot of global attention. Sometimes the size of the community of language users is dismally small (e.g., Xinkan and Máku have no language users left, while Iñapari has only four users remaining). Other times my research is focused on languages that have a much larger community of users (e.g., English and Spanish have millions of users, and Quechua has around 1.5 million users). I have collaborated with languages primarily in Central and South America, but have studied languages also in North America, Europe, Africa, and India, as I’m always hoping for new opportunities anywhere in the world.

However, no matter the size of the language or where it is spoken, the process of doing linguistics is always the same. It involves collecting information from an infinite set of possible language uses, constructing data from the description and analysis of that information, and then drawing inferences about the linguistic system being used and/or the allied cultural and social systems forming part of an individual’s or community’s identity. In my collaboration with language users, I learn a lot about their “story”—the individual and collective experiences that have shaped their values, beliefs, history, and perspectives. I also learn a lot about the unique linguistic systems that are a function of their cognition, environment, and social factors. This process might be visually depicted like this:

Now let me give you a more specific illustration. This summer I was working with some speakers of Wao Tededo, a language spoken in Ecuador and unrelated to any other known language in the world—the people are called Wao (sg.) or Waorani (pl.). As a linguist, I had become interested in two things: (1) the way that nasalization was being employed in the grammar of Wao Tededo and (2) how users of Wao Tededo reflected changes in assumed mental states of both speaker and hearer in the of participants within a given discourse (called information structure in linguistics). There are not many resources available in or on Wao Tededo so I couldn’t just pick up a volume of “Greatest Waorani Speeches” at a local bookstore to study. I had to record anything I wanted to use to study myself.

After 4.5 weeks of study with a few Waorani (my main teachers were, and continue to be, Ruben, Maria, and Adele Boyotai), I came away with hours of recordings and a basic competence in the language. It was enough to communicate but not enough to be fluent by any standard. Based on these recordings, I have a growing set of objective descriptions about changes in pronunciation, alternations in word forms, variations in sentence construction, and sociolinguistic patterns of language used in the Wao ecosystem (among other things). Based on these descriptions, I am able to infer some very intriguing aspects of the Wao Tededo system such as the interplay between nasalization and neutralization in the vowel system (nasalization neutralizes non-low front vowels /ĩ, ẽ/ to [ɘ̃], for example, making wĩga and wẽga sound exactly the same—at least to a non-native speaker), the connection between subordination and information structure (the subordinating suffix -te is also used to mark reactivated given referents), and an amazing pronominal organization (just in case you are wondering, it has a temporal egopgoric bound pronominal split!) These inferences are one half of the bridge.

Based on my interactions with my Wao Tededo teachers, and the information they so gratefully shared, I am also able to make inferences about how their language is an essential component of their moral outlook, how their collective and individual use of the language is being affected by their need to access national and international resources and by how the non-Waorani view the Waorani. The Waorani have unique insight into what it means to be human and how beauty and meaning can be experienced all around us. Their creative (traditionally) oral literature provides insight into many of the issues humans are confronted with around the world. Their rich artistic expression in dance, music, storytelling, painting, and weaving reflects a connection between the individual, community, family, and nature. These inferences are the other half of the bridge.

The linguistic bridge I metaphorically transversed while in Ecuador (and will continue to transverse as I work with the Waorani) belongs to both the social sciences and the humanities. Sometimes I am more on one side than the other, but ignoring either side creates an incomplete picture of the Waorani and of Wao Tededo.

Of course, being engaged in linguistic work does not require travel to “exotic” locations or work on “uncommonly studied” languages. Linguistic work is about any language, any community, any individual. What is required is an unbiased and objective attention to a linguistic system of communication and the subjective interpretation of the connection between the language system and its users. The linguistic bridge.

Next summer, I’ll be in the UK on my department’s English language study abroad, focusing my attention on more widely known languages while helping students appreciate the objectivity and subjectivity of language use. I can hardly wait to find out what I will learn about language systems (I am especially interested in how speakers mock and/or mimic others in English) and to help students learn to transverse the linguistic bridge. Tell your students to join us!

I hope all of us in, or affiliated with, the College of Humanities at BYU—especially those interested in language—try to transverse that bridge at least once in our professional development. You may find out that what you think you know about your favorite language’s system is not accurate (I’m talking to you, nouns and verbs in English) or that hidden within a language’s system is a humanistic connection that transcends objective facts.


Works Cited:

Sampson, Geoffrey. 1980. Schools of linguistics. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press. (20 January, 2023).

Popular Articles...

1 Comment

  1. Cindy Cromar says:

    Thank you for the clearly well written in depth meaning of Linguistics.

Leave a Reply