Mark Liberman’s latest post at Language Log reads, in its entirety:

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.


  1. I’m reminded, though, of Robert Louis Stevenson saying that reading Crime and Punishment was like having a disease. (Or maybe he said fever?) Being in the grip of a language is a little like being in the grip of a disease. Everything’s colored by it: the world is just a little off, a little disorienting, seen through the lense of new language, and you’re strangely weak, because you have to struggle to express the simplest things. But I don’t know if this aphorism was pointing towards that at all. Probably not.

  2. I think I understand the original aphorism. Many people that I’ve run into don’t have a concept of what a linguist is, and equate being a linguist with being a polyglot.
    When I tell people I was a linguistics major in college, most of them inevitably ask how many languages I speak, and are astounded when I say, “one and a half”. (My French is very poor, but it’s my only non-native language.)
    So the aphorism is pointing up the distinction between studying disease or having a disease, and equating it with studying language or knowing a language.
    I still don’t think I like it very much, but I’ll bet that’s where it comes from.

  3. As for the quotation business, I’m busted, I guess. It’s a fair cop.
    What happened is that I wrote the post first based on my memory of Mark Mandel having cited the aphorism in conversation. After I wrote it, I added a link to his home page, and when I looked down his home page, I saw that he had the aphorism there, and so I modified my post to say so; but I didn’t check his version against mine, since the whole thing was crammed into 10 minutes between a project meeting and a colloquium.
    As for why I have mixed feelings, it’s because I feel that everyone (and especially professional linguists) should use as well as study multiple languages, just as a matter of principle; but I also recognize that it’s possible for a monoglot to be a first-rate linguistics professional, and that command of several languages is often in any case irrelevant to the contributions that polyglot linguists make.
    Thus Bill Labov is not a monoglot, as it happens, but none of his major contributions depend on his speaking or reading any languages other than English.
    So in some sense I do agree that asking a linguist “how many languages do you speak” is making an essential mistake about what linguistics is. Even though I also think that the answer should not be “one.”

  4. LanguageHat, how do you identify yourself? You’re more than a polyglot, but surely you don’t count as a linguist…

  5. Nao has it right, I think. It’s the “speak” part which is the clue. While linguists certainly acquire knowledge of other languages, they don’t necessarily speak them.
    Plus, Lynne is too smart for me not to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

  6. Mark: OK, I understand how the quotation thing happened; if you worked for the NY Times you’d still be in big trouble, but hell, we’re loosey-goosey arouond here. Carry on.
    As for the “essential mistake about what linguistics is,” I guess what we have here is a culture clash. I was brought up in a linguistics culture that considered language acquisition to be essential to a linguist; of course a knowledge of other languages is not a sufficient condition of being a linguist, but it is (in my opinion) necessary, so the popular question doesn’t seem that odd to me, any more than asking a politician how they feel about kissing babies—not an inherent part of the job, so to speak, but a natural corollary. The fact that for thirty years or more it’s been possible to get certified as a linguist without knowing any languages beyond your native one seems to me a perversion of the order of things that likely presages Armageddon. (When the Rapture comes, only linguists who are also polyglots will ascend…)
    Eva: surely you don’t count as a linguist… Ow, that hurt! Listen, just because I never finished the dissertation…
    *breaks down momentarily, pulls himself together*
    Ahem. I identify myself as a citizen of the universe and a seeker of truth, one who happens to possess enough foreign-language dictionaries to fill more boxes than seems at all plausible (looks like we’ll be moving the first week of December, by the way). I may not be a linguist, but I play one on the internet.

  7. Jakobson didn’t have a PhD in Linguistics either, I believe. If anything, he was officially a Slavist (and that makes him sound like Scarlett O’Hara, ahem).
    If you aren’t a linguist, then I don’t know who is, hat.

  8. On who counts as a linguist: I’m convinced that Thomas Jefferson was a linguist (as well as an architect and many other more important things). And I’d say that our gracious host has provided plenty of evidence that he’s one too. I thought that before I knew that he ever started a dissertation.
    Formal schooling isn’t a bad thing, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. That’s clear, in linguistics and in other fields as well.

  9. And of course, the Chomskian “just-English-and-Hebrew-will-do-thank-you-very-much” attitude is bollocks. The more languages a linguist knows – and speaks (or at least tries to) -, the better. I can’t imagine why anybody would become a linguist if he didn’t have a love of languages.

  10. An aside: I don’t count myself a linguist. I majored in linguistics because I am interested in language and I was required to major in something to graduate from college. I liked learning about languages, but I have no profiency for actually learning them.
    The people I’ve talked to who think that linguist=polyglot have specifically stated that they thought they were much the same thing, and didn’t realize that linguists did much of anything *but* learn languages. Hence my realization. (It’s not unlike the all-too-serious question, “you have to have a master’s degree to shelve books?” upon my saying that I have an MLS.)
    Now, since I’m not a linguist, I think I’d better not try to define one… *grin*

  11. Love of languages? Check.
    Ability to competently speak any but English (and arguably French?), no matter how much I am immersed in the environment? Uh — does it count if I want to *study* other languages?

  12. I apologize for my earlier trollishness, and I’m glad to see you took it in stride. I now have a glass of wine in hand and would like to try this again.
    I think what’s at stake in defining ‘linguist’ is whether we see the discipline as an area of study or a methodology. A biochemist friend of mine* recently said that the only difference between his field and genetics is the way he asks questions: he looks at DNA like a biochemist. The object of study is the same; the method of inquiry defines the field.
    Rhetoric, in this sense, is a methodology, while English is an area of study. Both have departments at universities, and there’s overlap, but what’s important is whether the name of the discipline is a method or a field.
    Modern language departments are at the ‘field of study’ extreme. There are no theoretical assumptions common to members of language departments.
    Linguistics leans in the other direction: it’s a way of asking questions about language. It’s a lens. So I guess the final question is how restricted or specific that lens needs to be to count as linguistics: is it sufficient that you inquire by means of a theory or method, or does it have to be the _right_ theory or method? Maybe my earlier accusation fell prey to the latter.
    *Here I have fulfilled Condition 87d of Chomskyian linguisthood by invoking my connections to _real_ science.

  13. I mentioned to a friend once that I enjoyed language study and had thought of studying linguistics. He was a fanatical methodologist and immediately did a little double take and then gently and condescendingly informed me that language study has nothing to do with linguistics. (The punch line of the story is that he wasn’t a methodologist *linguist*; he wasn’t a linguist at all, he just was fanatically convinced that *every* field of study was methodological and not “field”. Ultimately our friendship did not survive the strain; one episode too many of methodological prissiness put me over the edge.
    I don’t have a problem with monolingual linguists though. My late cousin worked in areas like artificial intelligence, trying to make machines that could generate good English sentences and pronounce them right, and he had to get down with techie fine points (very fine points) of English, but not other languages.
    A linguist story: I met a friend of mine and asked what he was doing during the summer term. He said that he was learning Akkadian and Hittite. Two very difficult languages in one summer — obviously he wasn’t mastering them for any kind of use. (He would be the OTHER extreme to the monolingual linguists — he probably “knows” 20-30 languages well enough for a linguist’s purposes, but can only speak 1-3 of them besides English.

  14. To me, a linguist is someone who studies languages. Period. Hat, you are, by my definition, a linguist. However, a linguist can be a monolingual who learns (about) languages by studying their structure and examining the expressions of other languages… can’t she?
    (Defensively she adds her confessional on abortive language learning:) I did have 6 years of public school Spanish, none of which allows me to carry on more than the basest of conversations (“Quisiera la empanada de cambrai, por favor”), one and a half semesters of Italian, 4 classes in ASL, most of a reading course in Latin, a semester of German, a smattering of Pig Latin and 20+ years of Standard American English, once I stopped epenthesizing those Rs (not to be confused with my Native Queens New York English). I can also be profane in some Southern Italian dialect and Greek, thanks to my Queens upbringing.
    When the Linguistic Rapture comes, can I at least say I tried??

  15. Eva: No problem; it was a perfectly reasonable question. Have a glass on me.
    zizka: We both seem to have a knack for acquiring annoying friends. I once had one my wife literally wouldn’t be in the same room with. Fortunately he moved out of town. As for your linguist friend, he sounds like me; when I study languages by choice, it’s never for any useful purpose. Twice I’ve taught myself Georgian just for the hell of it, and soon it will be time to do it again. (Yes, I know, if I kept up the language I wouldn’t have to keep relearning it… but I like learning languages.)
    Rosanne: Of course you’ll be Raptured! But I have two questions.
    1) What the heck is an “empanada de cambrai”—a cambric empanada??
    2) Do I deduce correctly that your Queens upbringing was in Astoria, the very nabe I am now in the process of leaving?
    In general, I acknowledge I am irrational on the subject of monolingual linguists; of course it’s possible to study things about language without knowing more than one (just as it’s possible to do carpentry with one hand tied behind your back… now stop that! you’re trying to be nice!). But I was a foot soldier in the Linguistics Wars, and when I hear words like “transformation” or “universal” I get this twinge in my knee…

  16. LH, last time I was at Powell’s a saw a bunch of nice Basque materials. And isn’t Georgian a bit vulgar…. how about Abkhazian, Nivkh, or Yukagir?
    Last I read, The “Caucasian languages” were not one family, but three families which were not at all closely related. What’s the latest on that?

  17. Yes, I know, Georgian is a bit common, but I have all those nice books at hand. Now, if I run across a Yukagir textbook or two…
    And you’re correct, there are three families, South Caucasian (Kartvelian), Northwest Caucasian, and Northeast Caucasian; you can see the details here (where they’ve mislabeled the third family as Northwest rather than Northeast Caucasian). I’d actually like to learn Kabardian/Circassian, but the Cyrillic transcription is such a nuisance it puts me off.

  18. I was going to make a pithy comment, but I was so busy graphing the deep structure of your post I forgot what I was going to say. Ha!
    Being an on-again, off-again computational linguist, I can say with some certainty that there are huge chunks of work in linguistics that can be explored by a monoglot. Computational, developmental, pragmatics, and so on. Whereas there are other branches (phonology, morphology, sociolinguistics) wherein it’d be hard to be taken seriously if you didn’t have some familiarity with a variety of languages.
    My own anecdote about the polyglot/linguist confusion comes from my first year as a linguistics major, when some student asked the prof how many languages he spoke. He said he spoke one and explained the difference, but was so defensive about it that everyone was uncomfortable for the rest of the semester.

  19. Why is it that linguists in Europe and in what used to be called the third world, all speak other languages as a matter of course? Could it be that this discussion reveals some of the American reluctance, inability or whatever to learn other languages? And yes, as someone with a master’s in linguists working as a teacher, I know that technically, a linguist does not have to be proficient in any second language.

  20. “the American reluctance, inability or whatever”
    whatever = lack of practical incentive
    Americans natively speak the lingua franca of the modern world and border only a single nation with a prominent non-English language (yes, the Quebecois now have license to flame me). For a vast majority of America, speaking a foreign language is a conceit rather than a practical requirement.

  21. Of course a monolingual person can be a good linguist: she can study her own language.
    And of course it is preferable for a linguist to speak a few other languages. Triangulation.
    Let me put it this way. If all the languages in the world but one were suddenly to dissapear, would it make the field of linguistics dissapear? No. Just poorer.

  22. 1) What the heck is an “empanada de cambrai”—a cambric empanada??
    Well, it hasn’t got any sleeves or needlework, if that’s what you’re asking : ).
    It’s a delicious pastry, filled with guava paste and queso blanco… Colombian bakery on Jamaica Ave in Richmond Hill has it, and cheap, too.
    2) Do I deduce correctly that your Queens upbringing was in Astoria, the very nabe I am now in the process of leaving?
    Oh yes, indeedy, and it’s still the bastion of Greekness in NYC. Still go back there to shop for food on Ditmars and visit the folks.

  23. Well, if you’re planning to be around Ditmars in the next few weeks, drop me a line and I’ll be glad to meet you and hear about old times in Astoria.

  24. Of course a monolingual person can be a good linguist: she can study her own language.

    How many languages does Chomsky speak?

  25. I’ve been reading through your posts and thought that maybe someone here could help me. I am both a linguist (sort of) and a polyglot. I say sort of because linguistics isn’t really offered at my college and its kind of just a hobby of mine, but none the less I have just applied to linguistics departments for graduate school. I am a little concerned that by going to school for an advanced degree in linguistics I will only be able to take courses in theory and thus lose my polyglot-ness. Is this true? Is anyone here a linguistics grad student? as an undergrad I studied German, French, Japanese, and dabbled in Korean, Swedish, Spanish, and Russian but never had time to take them long enough to learn the last 4 well.

  26. I am a little concerned that by going to school for an advanced degree in linguistics I will only be able to take courses in theory and thus lose my polyglot-ness. Is this true?
    Good god, I hope not. If so, the Rapture may be even closer than I feared. I suspect it depends on what kind of linguistics you study; if it’s theoretical linguistics, you may well be discouraged from “wasting your time” on actual languages, but if you study historical linguistics you’ll get all the languages you can handle. I can’t speak for sociolinguistics and other varieties, but I suggest you check the course offerings of the departments you’re applying to and perhaps contact people there to find out what the approach is. Good luck, and don’t borrow money if you can help it!

  27. but if you study historical linguistics you’ll get all the languages you can handle…
    Actually I did apply to historical linguistics departments, some were specifically historical Germanic programs because German is my major while the other two are minors. The fact that I applied to specifically Germanic programs kind of bothers me in retrospect because but I’m also interested in Asian languages and French. In historical linguistics do you get to study modern as well as ancient languages? I would assume you’d have to know the modern ones to see the changes that have taken place from the earlier forms…thanks for all your help!

  28. Well, the emphasis is on the ancient ones (in Germanic, Gothic, Old High German, Old Norse, and Old English, primarily), but of course a lot of the scholarship is in modern German. If you want to do Asian languages, of course, a Germanic department won’t do you much good. I suggest you decide what’s most interesting/important to you before you commit yourself.

  29. John Cowan says

    As far as I can make out, the etymology of empanada de cambray is not known. It’s unlikely to have anything to do with the town of Cambrai in Picardy (Kamerijk in Dutch, Kamerich/-ick in older German and English), for which both cambric and chambray (a Central French form) are named. In Latin the town was Camaracum, with the Gaulish -acum ending meaning ‘estate of’, which became -ac in Occitania, -y in the North.

    I did find out in the course of looking that empanadas are ultimately of Galician origin, and that empanadas filled with mincemeat (sweet rather than savory) are known in Sicily as mpanatigghi, presumably from the Spanish conquest of Naples and Sicily.

    Chomsky speaks English and undoubtedly knows Hebrew well: his parents were Hebrew teachers and he worked on a kibbutz in his youth. He has been observed to understand both French and German without an interpreter, though not to speak them.

  30. Stephen Carlson says

    Re Chomsky and Hebrew, his master’s thesis is “Morphophonemics of Modern Hebrew.”

  31. Yes, but by itself that proves nothing. I can haz written squibs, both here and on Quora, about many a language without speaking more than one.

  32. Stephen Carlson says

    I know. I sometimes cringe when a linguist cites something in a language I know. But then, how often did this happen before the Chomsky era?

  33. ktschwarz says

    OP: “Asking a linguist how many diseases he speaks”

    I’m sure I’ve read this post at least a few times before without noticing anything odd there. Just goes to show how much filtering out/reconstructing goes on in reading as well as hearing.

    Lynne Murphy’s quote appeared on ADS-L (where Mark Mandel was a frequent participant) on June 30, 2000 as: “I always tell people that asking a linguist how many languages she speaks is kind of like asking a doctor how many diseases he has.” (My bold.) Mandel omitted the hedging “kind of”, and flipped the pronouns, I would bet not on purpose — more filtering out/reconstructing.

  34. Good lord, I never noticed that either, and apparently neither did anyone else! This is why redundancy is a good thing and sloppiness is inherent in language as well as all other human activities.

  35. David Eddyshaw says

    I know what Stevenson meant (in Dale’s comment from 2003.)

    Crime and Punishment colonises your mind while you are reading it. The only other novel I’ve ever had quite that experience with is Ulysses, which has me actually thinking in streams-of-consciousness for days after I’ve read it.

  36. Stu Clayton says

    actually thinking in streams-of-consciousness for days

    Those streams run staidly and steadily between subconscious banks. In the desert, where I grew up, you get only flash floods of short-lived insight.

  37. David Eddyshaw says

    Well, me too, except after reading Ulysses. Perhaps I should read it more often, but I don’t think my brain can actually sustain such heavy activity for a sustained period, and I’m afraid of breaking something.

  38. Stu Clayton says

    Try alternating mental labor with menial jobs. Waiting lifts is less stressful than lifting weights.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    That may be the key.

  40. David Marjanović says


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