Erin Haagsma graduated from Calvin College in 2018 with a BA in Linguistics and minors in Spanish and philosophy. Nothing brings her more joy than stumbling upon a cat on the sidewalk, geeking out about language and such, spending time with her favorite people, and being outside on a spring or fall day.
I majored in linguistics. When I’ve told people this, I’ve been met with questions like, “How many languages do you speak?,” “So…what are you going to do with that? Teach?,” and most simply, “What is that?”
I’ve gotten good at translating these questions. “How many languages do you speak?” means “I don’t know what linguistics is but I don’t like to admit that I don’t know so I’m going to ask this question based on common assumptions and stereotypes.” Luckily for me, I also studied Spanish, so I can answer, “Two!” and move on.
“What are you going to do with that? Teach?” usually comes from a relative or relative-adjacent friend and means, “I don’t know what linguistics is and I’m concerned about your financial well-being.” My real answer is, “I’m still figuring that out.” But my reassuring answer is, “Yeah, maybe! Or translate? Lots of options, don’t worry.”
“What is that?” is the most straightforward. It means exactly what you think it means: “I don’t know what linguistics is but I would like to find out!”
So why did I study linguistics, and what is it, really? Is it enough to be the thing that lights my soul on fire, energizes me, and holds my endless curiosity? I think so. But it’s also so much more.
Linguistics is the meta-analysis of language. It’s taking a step back from this intimate, personal, social, identifying aspect of our everyday lives and learning to see it through fresh eyes.
Linguistics is stripping language down to the barest bones, to the sounds that we’ve decided mean things. It’s feeling the way our lips close and open and close again when we say the word “bop,” the way our vocal chords buzz on and off. It’s carefully and lovingly peeling back the layers to see what’s underneath and having a greater appreciation for the whole because of it.
Linguistics is realizing that most of those grammar rules you learned in grade school are completely arbitrary and not knowing them doesn’t make you an idiot. It’s learning the difference between those rules and the grammar that you inherently know: the structure and nature of language. It’s the freedom to release yourself from those strangleholds of what language should be and to enjoy it for what it is: fun, dynamic, constantly changing and shifting, malleable like play-dough, infinitely varied.
Linguistics is having fun! There’s a reason it’s called “word play”: puns and spoonerisms and unintentionally ambiguous headlines tap into that childlike wonder that makes you giggle just from the sensation of discovering something new. Linguistics helps us rediscover the gift of language, a gift that we haven’t lost but have neglected to say thank you for.
Linguistics is finding joy in language change and variation, delighting in the ways that people innovate online with abbreviations and memes that eventually find their way into our spoken language. It’s marveling at the way we fill in gaps in our language when needs arise, like the singular they, which has been used in English for centuries but is now coming into prominence as non-binary, gender noncomforming, and trans folks are claiming it for themselves. Linguistics helps us see innovations like this with curiosity and wonder rather than fear.
Linguistics matters. It matters because language matters and people matter. It matters because it helps us recognize that the only qualitative difference between any two languages or dialects is their social power and privilege. It matters because kids who grow up speaking non-standard dialects of English like AAVE are made to think that they speak broken English or have bad grammar, and that simply isn’t true. It matters because the distance between thinking your language is broken and bad to thinking that you’re broken and bad is not far. Linguistics matters because language and identity are so intertwined that, as Gloria Anzaldúa says in her groundbreaking work Borderlands / La Frontera, “I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.”
Linguistics matters because the story of my faith tells me that Pentecost was not a reversal of Babel but a celebration of difference. If Babel is about division then Pentecost is about unity, but not sameness. Everyone who heard the gospel at Pentecost was welcomed exactly as they were through the language of their own hearts and identities. That was the miracle. They didn’t have to change anything about themselves to be drawn in. “This is for you!,” they heard, because they could understand it. Their language was valued: therefore, they were valued. This is the picture of the kingdom of God that we get: not homogeny, not going back to the way things were before, but the ushering in of something new and better, in which our oneness and joy is not in sameness but in difference. That’s something that linguistics can help us see.
So what is linguistics? It’s my favorite way to see the world.