how to talk about linguistics with non-linguists
As a specialist you have a level of contextual understanding for realms of knowledge contained in words for which non-specialists also have normal everyday uses.
Consider words like: “context”, “ungrammatical”, “attention”, and “construe”…these words mean entirely different things to a non-linguist than they do to a linguist (let alone the differences between a cognitive linguist and a generative linguist).
Using these types of words with non-linguists as if they understood the linguistic sense of the word will not work; you will have failed communication.
In order to communicate with a non-linguist you have to consider words in the senses with which non-linguists associate the ‘meanings’ of those words (assuming you “believe” that “meaning” can be conjured up using “words” as “prompts” to even “know” something at all).
The best way to communicate with non-linguists about linguistics is to actually use your knowledge of linguistics as if you were a user and not a scientist…here is what I mean:
- don’t talk about blends – use them
- don’t mention conceptual integration, just quietly marvel to yourself when you spot it
- don’t talk about dynamic construal, just accept that it happens
- don’t point out the flow of information in discourse, just use it to be a better listener
- don’t suggest that perhaps what a person attends to may have colored their interpretation of your apparent sigh, just realize that it gives you insight into the other person’s state of mind when they interact with you
- also, and finally, don’t mention the data (i.e., the peculiarities of human communication in situ) – the other person is almost always going to understand you to mean that you are making an assertion or an evaluation (i.e., judgement) rather than an observation about what just happened…and, usually, it will put them on edge.
Maybe if a non-linguist inquires about your linguistic beliefs you will get the opportunity to evangelize the joys of using conceptual tools to make sense out of the patterns of conceptualization manifested in everyday speech by everyday people. I say maybe because if it happens you are extremely lucky.
I have been trying to explain my research to people I know outside of academia and outside of the discipline and I typically see glazed over faces with eyes that tell me this: “I didn’t know that I didn’t want to know about what you are interested in; can you please stop talking because it is too much information for me to process…” And this is no fault of their own. These are real people with their own real concerns about life, with their own real and valid contributions to make in conversation. These are smart people who actually care about things in life… they just don’t care about linguistics.
Frankly, while I still like these people, still love them, and still accept them, it makes me a little sad that I can’t still talk to them ABOUT the discipline that is so near and dear to my heart. On this side of the non-linguist/linguist divide I know that the insights of cognitive linguistics would really really truly help these people appreciate the intricacies of how conceptualization gives shape to meaning, but most people care very little about meaning, let alone conceptualization, let alone the fact that the “let alone x” construction actually has something informative to tell you about how we conceptualize using “fully productive grammatical patterns”, whatever that means…
Non-Linguist Reader – lest you imagine that I am writing specifically about you, please understand that I am referring to the category of non-linguists as a whole, and imagining that I am speaking directly to or at you is narcissism. This is merely commiseration with other people like me who have trouble being understood by good (i.e., normal) people like yourself.