Linguists Strike Back


I answered the question “so how many languages do you speak?” six times just this week. I love counting and measuring but if there were were a completely meaningless number, it’s this one. 

I wish people asked me, instead, how many books and articles I’ve published. I’d answer that question six times an hour without getting tired. 

5 thoughts on “Linguists Strike Back”

  1. My favortie strategy is “define ‘speak'” or “define ‘know'” depending on how they phrase the damned question.

    It really confuses them when I say I have comprehensive knowledge of the grammars of languages I could not hope to speak, read or understand or I that I can read languages that I would never say that I ‘know’ in any real meaning of the word.


    1. Exactly. You can’t see language as an item you own that can be counted. And you don’t really need to. People dream of “knowing ten languages” but what does it mean? It’s all useless if you don’t inhabit a language, don’t live it as a daily reality. And you can’t do that with 10 languages.


  2. Sometimes speaking several languages can be quite entertaining. At one of the bases where I was stationed in Italy, there were a group of young maids who spoke only Italian, and a young German Gastarbeiter who only spoke his native language. (We were all young at the time.)

    The maids and the German worker hated each other, and whenever they wanted to fight about something (which was frequently), they’d come to me as a group to translate their quarrel.

    Maids (in Italian): “Tell this stupid kraut he needs to stop doing…”

    So I’d translate their insult into German, and the worker would reply (in German): “Yeah, well, tell these dumb broads that they’re…”

    That may have been an immature use of my linguistic skills, but it was fun. 🙂


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