In Summary
  • A linguist, in the popular mind, is a person who knows many languages. I do not know if I qualify as a linguist on that score.
  • I may claim reasonable proficiency in Luganda, English, Kiswahili, French and Latin.
  • I can even say “keif al-hal” and a few other things in Arabic. But that does not make me a linguist.
  • A speaker of many languages is simply a polyglot.

I believe I told you the story. I asked the professor to pick up a set of my academic transcripts from Dar es Salaam for me. He did and, apparently, he could not help stealing a glance at my grades.

So, as he was handing me the package, he nonchalantly said to me, “Austin, you are a linguist masquerading in Literature.”

Here was a classic example of a double-edged compliment. I did not particularly relish that bit about masquerading, and I will defend myself against it some day.

But I was genuinely flattered by being recognised as a “linguist” by one of the most respected linguistic authorities of our times and climes. For the speaker was none other than our recently and dearly departed Prof Duncan Okoth-Okombo.

I will not eulogise this wonderful man and scholar, for three simple reasons. First, so many of my friends and colleagues seem to be departing that if I insist on talking personally about them, my column risks becoming an obituary page. Secondly, Prof Okoth-Okombo was such a giant among us that there is no shortage of tributes paid to him by more knowledgeable and close colleagues.

Thirdly and most importantly, I believe that Prof would probably have been happier with me sharing ideas with you than regaling you with my personal memories of him. So, we will devote our time today to a close look at this “linguist” and “linguistics” thing that Prof believed we had in common, and what it has to do with us in our everyday lives.

A linguist, in the popular mind, is a person who knows many languages. I do not know if I qualify as a linguist on that score. I may claim reasonable proficiency in Luganda, English, Kiswahili, French and Latin.

I can even say “keif al-hal” and a few other things in Arabic. But that does not make me a linguist. A speaker of many languages is simply a polyglot.

A true linguist is a person who practises linguistics, and linguistics is the science of language. That is pretty simple, is it not? Language is the human facility to communicate through systematic conventional vocal symbols. Linguistics, like physics, is a science in the sense that it studies language objectively and experimentally, relying on observed, and provable empirical evidence.

But that is the way we talk in lecture and seminar rooms. Let us get back to practical matters. We have just said that a linguist practices linguistics. This means that linguistics is a job, like medicine. A linguistic practitioner does the job of language, just as a medical practitioner does the job of medicine or a legal practitioner does law.

The linguists’ duties in the practice of their skills are multitude and we cannot enumerate all of them here. The discipline of linguistics comprises several branches, in which linguistic professionals specialise. There is, for example, structural linguistics, which deals with the building blocks of language: its sounds, word formations and changes, meanings and the way we string them together to communicate.

This is where you hear the big terms like phonology, lexicology, morphology, semantics and syntax.

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