McWhorter, J. PhD Linguistics (Stanford). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue (2009). p. x Bottom.

  Yet my impatience with the word fetish of typical popular treatments of The History of English is based in the fact that I happen to be a linguist. Etymology is, in fact, but one tiny corner of what modern linguistic science involves, and linguists are not formally trained in it [emboldening mine]. Any of us sought for public comment are familiar with the public’s understandable expectation that to be a linguist is to carry thousands of etymologies in one’s head, when in fact, on any given question as to where a word comes from, we usually have to go searching in a dictionary like anyone else.

p. xi

  Linguists are more interested in how the words are put together, and how the way they are put together now is different from how they were put together in the past, and why. That is, we are interested in what the layman often knows as “syntax,” which we call grammar.

I'm assuming that Historical Linguistics is mandatory for any undergraduate (and graduate) Linguistics student.

Doesn't Historical Linguistics suffice to train someone in etymology?

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    "I'm assuming that Historical Linguistics is mandatory for any undergraduate (and graduate) Linguistics student." Nope. There is in fact a fair bit of animus against Historical Linguistics as "old hat" from contemporary mainstream linguists — not just Chomskians, but also fieldworkers. I got to lecture historical linguistics in my alma mater because the permanent staff didn't want to. – Nick Nicholas Jul 3 '18 at 4:39
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    Formal training in phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and historical linguistics is conditio sine qua non. It is the bare minimum, but it is not enough. – Alex B. Jul 3 '18 at 16:21

Your presumption about mandatory historical linguistics (and whatever curricular assumptions you have about such a course) may be true in some specific instances, and are generally false. It is an error to assume that there is a universal set of required core courses for linguists at the undergraduate or graduate level, or to assume that the content of such courses necessarily covers (fill in your favorite topic). At most, you might assume a near-universal requirement for some course in a sound-related area, and a form-related area ("phonetics and phonology", "syntax and semantics").

The domain of historical and comparative linguistics (I have to insist that you not subsume comparative linguistics as a subcase of historical linguistics) is sufficiently broad that no single course at either the undergraduate level nor the graduate level can teach a student the art of etymology. Indeed, no two courses, or three courses can properly teach the art of evaluating historical relations between words. For example, it is purported that hansa from Lufthansa derives from an older German word that connects to "Hanseatic", has some form in Old High German, and according to etymologyonline comes from some stage of French or Latin. The art of etymology involves, among other things, evaluating relatedness claims. 99% of linguists are in no position to critically evaluate these claims.

In short, the art of etymology is not a trivial parlor trick that can be quickly mastered, just as semantics and phonology are not trvialities that can be pwned in a class or two. Instead, they require a serious intellectual commitment to get, properly. The typical mandatory classes for grad school don't even teach you enough syntax that you are trained to do syntax, or enough phonology that you are trained to do phonology. Instead, you get trained to do syntax if you chose syntax as your field, etc.

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    To make explicit something that you implied in your Lufthansa example: doing etymology often involves a command of not just language history, but general history. – Nick Nicholas Jul 3 '18 at 8:31

Doesn't Historical Linguistics suffice to train someone in etymology?

No, and let's work through the context of McWhorter's remarks to explain why.

Modern linguistics, since structuralism—in fact, since the neogrammarians—is about working out systems, and not just explaining particulars. It explains language as a system, through rules; that's what McWhorter is professing allegiance to. Etymology according to that mindset is a a throwback to the bad old days of the early 19th century, when linguists were not about the overall system but about the particulars; not about the forest but the trees. That's not how linguistics has worked for the past 150 years, and McWhorter finds no satisfaction in going through lots of minutiae about particular words, that are idiosyncratic and don't lead to a big systematic narrative. To him, it's sterile antiquarianism.

I can see why McWhorter reacts that way. I think it's a self-defeating reaction, because of course the majority of contemporary linguists regard the historical linguistics he practices as sterile antiquarianism. Historical Linguistics is far more popular with laypeople than with academic linguists, as I commented above. (Just as etymology is.)

So etymology's focus on the particular is not part of the modern linguistic narrative; and the modern linguistic narrative is overwhelmingly synchronic anyway. It is neither fashionable to teach etymology, nor ideologically sympatico.

But there's another reason why Historical Linguistics, even at a graduate level, is not enough to equip you for etymology. And it ties in to another question the same querent asked today: Isn't it obvious that linguists must specialize in language contact to study the history of English?

Language contact study requires deep knowledge of the history of both languages involved, to get all the details right: it is a cross-disciplinary enterprise. Etymology is even more cross-disciplinary: to get it right, you need to know not just several overlapping disciplines of linguistics (sociology, semantics, pragmatics, phonology, and their diachronic counterparts), but also several overlapping disciplines of history: cultural history as well as big-picture history (population movements etc). Just as philology, the other discipline modern linguists like to dismiss as Old Hat (when they're even aware of it) is cross-disciplinary, involving history and literature studies as well as linguistics.

No, contemporary linguists aren't trained in that kind of thing, and yes it is old-fashioned. But to dismiss it as a fetish and a tiny corner of your discipline is silly: it is in fact much bigger than your discipline. And those scholars who did not stay in the confines of linguistics or history, and wrote those dictionaries we all end up looking up, linguist or not, deserve huge respect. Especially because they don't get formal training in that line of work. (What cross-disciplinary scholar does now?)

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    This answer seems too emotionally caught up in disparaging the modern linguistic field to be appropriate here. It also doesn't match my experience, nor I'm sure, for many other people. If you've got any quotes which support what you're saying then please go ahead and edit them in. – curiousdannii Jul 3 '18 at 13:27
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    A truism, alas, but I thought I should say this, all professional etymologists of our time are professional linguists, but not all professional linguists are etymologists (re: your last paragraph). – Alex B. Jul 3 '18 at 16:26
  • @curiousdannii If Erich Round was one of your lecturers at UQ, then I'd say you've had a more well-rounded experience of linguistics than has been the norm. One of the few linguists I'd met (in my day) who actually reflected on his discipline. – Nick Nicholas Jul 4 '18 at 1:49
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    @Nick Huh, how'd you figure that out? I've met him, but he started just after I finished. – curiousdannii Jul 4 '18 at 2:15

I think etymology should be thought of as one of the results that can arise from an individual studying a group of languages for several decades. A regular linguistics education will probably give you the skills that are required: skills of observation, description, analysis, synthesis. But they can't give you the years of accumulating data and facts about multiple languages you need in order to start explaining the history of a language and the relationship it has with other languages past and present.

If a linguist tells me that word X in language A is descended from word Y in language B, then unless I have years of experience in both languages, I'd just have to take it on faith that they're right, just as any non-linguist would. The history of words and other linguistic changes is a series of individual quirks of history, and while a linguist can apply their skills of analysis to a modern language they don't know much about, there's much less they can say about its history without an extensive experience with it. Maybe technology will make it easier to study etymology with less personal experience, but a person will still need to be responsible, tools can't do everything.

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    "studying a group of languages for several decades" - how true, this is very important. – Alex B. Jul 3 '18 at 16:23

The answer is ... fashion.

Currently in the US (I can't speak to philology or linguistics in Europe or elsewhere), historical linguistics is almost always offered as a single specific class but also almost always not a required one. In contrast, the required main subjects, phonology, syntax, semantics, in contrast have much longer, multi-class tracks.

There is a large component of the linguistics faculty that is theoretical (meaning somewhat separate from particular languages). But there is a varyingly large part that is language specific. If the department of linguistics is separate from the language teaching faculty, there is still a lot of overlap, and linguistics graduate students are expected to know more than one foreign language and probably even teach one. And a language specific professor may well be a linguistic theorist.

Historical linguistics is not just etymology. A linguistics faculty member, who happens to also be a language specific expert (i.e. not purely a theoretician) will probably be adept at many of the languages in the same family. Part of the expertise may well show itself in lexical history. But compiling, say, a comparative vocabulary of Polynesian and Australasian, while an important part of linguistic knowledge, is not a central topic in current linguistics.


There are at least two current uses of the word "linguist".

In one more restricted sense, used especially in America, "linguistics" refers to the Chomskian program to investigate the human faculty of language, especially through syntax. When they want to be more specific, its practitioners sometimes call it "core" or "modern" linguistics. It is by definition interested in language as it exists internally in the mind of an individual ("I-language") and not in the sense of a social, historically-built construct shared between communities ("E-language"). This strict definition considers historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, typology, philology, dialectology, forensic linguistics, second-language acquisition, functional linguistics, endangered language revitalization etc. as "non-core", "non-modern" or "tangential" forms of linguistics, or even "not linguistics" (one prominent Chomskian calls such topics of study by a special neologism, "languistics"). In my experience many Chomskians seem to engage in minor polemics of the form "linguists aren't really interested in $topic, because syntax is so much more interesting", even as the International Linguistic Conference on $Topic is taking place next door—because what they really mean is "(Chomskian) linguists aren't really interested in $topic".

For researchers in those other areas "linguistics" is a wider term encompassing all paradigms of language research, of which the faculty of language is but one subfield among many.

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    languistics: This guy, I take it: facultyoflanguage.blogspot.com/2014/03/hornsteins-lament.html I really, really have no discourse in common with this school, but I'll leave the link up for those who do. – Nick Nicholas Jul 4 '18 at 14:17
  • I think it's ludicrous to say that there is any substantial portion of linguists anywhere who would say that Chomskian linguistics is the definition of linguistics. Even MIT has subjects covering socio and acquisition. – curiousdannii Jul 4 '18 at 15:53
  • The langusitics guy is weird though. Can't see any signs that it's caught on though. – curiousdannii Jul 4 '18 at 16:42
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    It is rather sad to see the word "languistics" coming from N.H. I'm sure that term will never get caught on because of its derision and scientific arrogance. – Alex B. Jul 4 '18 at 17:23
  • @curiousdannii, "The langusitics guy is weird though" - why weird? – Aharon M. Vertmont Jul 4 '18 at 20:47

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