Mark Mandel‘s home page includes this aphorism, attributed to Lynne Murphy:
“Asking a linguist how many languages (s)he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases (s)he has.”
I think I don’t agree, but I’m not sure why not. Maybe I don’t like to think of a language as being analogous to a disease, pace William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson .
I have a couple of problems with this.
The first is that it seems to me a stupid aphorism, and I don’t see why Mark has such trouble figuring out why he doesn’t agree with it. Asking a linguist how many diseases he speaks may be vaguely analogous to asking a doctor how many diseases she has studied, but in no sense can a linguist’s speaking a language be considered analogous to a doctor’s having a disease. Leaving aside the silliness of the language/disease equation, linguists aquire languages as part of their professional arsenal (unless of course they’re Chomskyites, in which case they study their navels instead); a doctor getting sick is just like anyone else getting sick, aside from the mild irony of the situation. The statement is the sort of thing that pops into one’s head around 2 a.m. in a dorm room or bar, and is best left in that setting, where muzzy tributes like “Wow, man!” can be offered without the inconvenient disruption of analytical thought.
You may have noticed the shifting pronouns used for the protagonists in my version of the story above; they are not my invention, but are present in the version on Mandel’s page, cited as Mark’s source:
“Asking a linguist (language scientist) how many languages he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases she has.” (Lynne Murphy)
Which is the second problem. Yo! Mark! When you put something in quotation marks, it’s supposed to be quoted—no silent paraphrasing allowed.