Issue 2 |

Popularising Linguistics: An interview with Gretchen McCulloch

by on February 12, 2015

Anirudh Krishnan speaks to Gretchen McCulloch. Gretchen runs pop linguistics website, and also contributes to The Toast, and Slate magazine’s language blog and podcast, Lexicon Valley.


I’ve been following your work at AllThingsLinguistic for a year or more now. Not being a linguist myself, your blog always gave me just the bite-sized jargon-free linguistic geekery I was looking for. Thank you for that, and thank you for talking to Unravel. It is a great honour.

You say on your personal website that you’re interested in making linguistics topics more accessible to the general public. If not for your picture up there, I might easily have thought I was on Unravel’s own About page. What is it, to you, that makes linguistics so hard for the outsider to grasp?

I don’t think that linguistics is any harder than other fields to grasp. In fact, it can be easier to explain to the public because you can show people real examples without a lot of technical equipment, since everyone speaks a language. And people have a lot of intuitive knowledge about language: they notice different accents, know intuitively how to switch between registers, and so on. I’d say sometimes people underrate linguistics because they think they already know everything there is to know about language. But just like driving a car is not the same as understanding how its engine works, speaking a language isn’t the same as understanding how language works.

Linguistics suffers from the fact it’s not often taught in high schools, and teachers who mention linguistic concepts in language arts or second language classes aren’t always well-trained or up-to-date on linguistics. In my opinion, that’s the main problem.

You’ve talked about some pretty bizarre stuff on your blog. Seriously, the constraints on forming synonyms for Benedict Cumberbatch. Bizarre, but absolutely hilarious. Where do you get these ideas?

The ironic thing is that I’m actually not a huge Benedict Cumberbatch fan. I mean, he’s okay, but I’m far more interested in analysing synonyms for his name as a linguistic phenomenon than watching him in movies. Basically, though, I spend a lot of time on the internet, and I see stuff like Bandycoot Cabbagepatch, or doge, or memes and pop/internet culture, and I can’t help but want to analyse them. I think it’s important for people to see that it’s not just the highest-prestige forms of “standard” English that are worthy of analysis, but that even the slang you use with your friends has patterns to it.

Of course, it’s also fun to read a very serious academic analysis of a rather absurd phenomenon. I could come up with boring examples that prove the same point, but I think it’s more authentic to work with language that people are already using, and in real life people are often funny. So a lot of my ideas just come from conversations with friends, things I see on the internet, or other real-life examples. I can’t turn off the analytical linguist part of my brain, and I don’t want to.

You’ve done a lot of work in internet linguistics. Many people today already recognise that the internet has created new dialects in many languages and has a distinct vocabulary. What about internet languages interests you? What’s the value in it?

One of the main things is that I just see so much internet language, and of course when I see it I want to analyse it. I think internet language is unique because it’s fairly unfiltered, which is pretty rare in the history of written language. If you wanted to get something published in writing, you used to have to go through an editor and a publisher, who would change your language to conform to house style or various prescriptive norms, so it was really hard to see what normal people were actually doing with language. But now, anyone can make a blog or post on social media and no one’s editing your language (except maybe spellcheck!). So I think internet language is a lot closer to how people talk naturally, and it’s a really interesting place to find innovation.

In terms of why I like writing about internet language for the public so much, well, apart from the fact that it’s fun, I also feel like it’s responsible research ethics. My background is in linguistic fieldwork, and I think that when I’m working with a community I have an ethical obligation to communicate the results back to them in a useful manner. So for internet research, I want to write about it in a form that’s interesting to people who actively use it. Internet language isn’t endangered, but it is stigmatised. I feel like people on the internet do need to know that their “dialect” is worthy of study.

And another thing is, when you present about internet language to an audience of academics, for example, few are native speakers of that dialect, so they basically just take my word for it. But when I publish directly online, I reach a lot of fluent speakers of internet dialects and they really want to give me feedback on whether I’m accurately representing how they speak. And at the same time, plenty of linguists also read my stuff online so I feel like I’m held to pretty high standards—I definitely hear about it within about half an hour if I make a typo in IPA or something.

In your experience, why is it that people know less about what linguistics entails than they do about what psychology, politics or philosophy entails?

Linguistics is a relatively young field—modern linguistics at the very least, so it just hasn’t had much time to make its way into school curricula, which is where a lot of people learn what their academic options are. For example, many high schools at least have an optional course on psychology or philosophy, and everywhere offers topics like physics or history, but linguistics is far less common. We may be making some progress on this: there’s a new linguistics sub-topic within Language A for the International Baccalaureate programme, and linguistics olympiads are becoming more common in high schools, neither of which existed when I was in high school. There are also a few high schools in the United States that offer a linguistics course, and hopefully that continues.

I think there’s also real potential for including linguistics topics in existing courses. If language arts, literature, and second-language teachers took a linguistics course or two as part of their training, they’d have a better grasp of how to deal with linguistics topics. For example, ‘determiner’ as a part of speech has actually been around since the early 1900s—it’s really well-established, and yet students are still learning that ‘the’ is an article and ‘my’ is an adjective, because that’s what their teachers learned in school. There are lots of areas that could benefit from more linguistics, including historical language change, sociolinguistics, second language acquisition, and more.

Is the field too narrowly defined?

There is definitely scope for more interdisciplinary work with linguistics—linguistic anthropology, philosophy of language, psycholinguistics, and so on. Ideally, you want people working in these areas to have backgrounds in linguistics and the other field, or at least to have people on a team with various backgrounds. Sometimes that happens these days, but not always—you read language-related articles written by specialists in other fields who are making really basic linguistics errors. Language Log is good at calling out problems like this though.

In general, I’d also say that linguistics is a very young field. A lot of the biggest names are those of people who are still alive: Noam Chomsky, William Labov. So it’s still maturing as a field, and as linguistics becomes more “mainstream”, it may become more likely that people take up related courses in related fields. But it takes time because the tenured professors in universities today were getting educated at a time when linguistics was even younger. As time progresses, I’m sure we’ll see more interdisciplinary work being done.

Is the study of language largely centred around North America and other English-speaking communities?

I’m not necessarily the best person to answer this, since I’m in North America and working primarily in English, so I can’t tell if me seeing a lot of English linguistics is representative of the field as a whole or merely my own position in it. I’m aware of people doing linguistics in South Africa, North America, UK, Europe, Australia, so that’s pretty much the Anglosphere plus Europe. But there’s definitely linguistics happening in other languages and continents: I’ve met a few linguists from South America and Central America from a conference that I went to on Mayan linguistics a few years ago. And when I went to CoLang, the collaborative institute for language documentation, I met some linguists and community members who were establishing research programmes to preserve and study their languages in Morocco and Nigeria.

I would say that it feels to me like many of the people who put linguistics on the map were either American or British. Many students come to North America to study linguistics, and then return to study their own languages or have international research teams. There’s also pressure on people who want to have an international impact to publish in English. I think that Western linguists working on smaller languages could make an effort to involve native speakers of that language and encourage them to become linguists themselves if they’re interested.

To what extent do you think a linguist needs to speak a bunch of foreign languages?

I’d say it can be useful, but it’s not necessary, and it depends a lot on what you’re trying to do. It’s certainly nice to have more languages that you can draw on, but you can also get that from other sources, such as consulting native speakers or reading grammars. And of course, there are many famous linguists who don’t speak many languages at all.

I’d say it’s more typical for linguists to not necessarily speak many languages, but to know about the grammar and unique features of quite a few languages. Many linguists know for example that Bantu languages have many noun classes, that Basque is an ergative language, and where to look or who to ask for more information. But they probably don’t know how to ask for directions or buy food in those languages.

Linguistics as a field does need to be able to draw conclusions that are useful to more languages and families than just the largest ones such as English and Indo-European, so as to make broader conclusions that hold across communities and language families. But an individual linguist doesn’t need to speak all the languages in order to help with that—deep knowledge of just one or two languages can also be useful.

How much of an outsider is linguistics to the social sciences sphere?

I’ve heard other linguists say that linguistics suffers from a case of physics envy, and I agree. Physics uses interesting tools. Everybody takes physics seriously as a science. Everyone knows physics is measuring something out there that is real and tangible. Linguistics sometimes wants to be that.

That said, however, linguistics is probably not the only social science that has physics envy. Perhaps psychology or other fields do too. And it’s definitely nice to be able to do linguistics without needing massive, expensive equipment like the Large Hadron Collider.

At the social sciences New Year’s party, is linguistics the lanky guy out on the balcony who doesn’t say a word to anyone?

I don’t think so! At least, when I go to parties, people like the idea of talking to a linguist—they don’t want to shove me out on the balcony! They’re not necessarily asking the most informed questions—I still get “How many languages do you speak?”—, but people do generally think linguistics is cool even if they aren’t exactly sure what it entails.

There’s also a huge market for pop linguistics books. There are lots of aspects of linguistics that are interesting to people who don’t know much about linguistics. People notice other dialects, differences in word choice, their children growing up and acquiring their first language, different accents, speech disorders, and so on. And there’s a general interest in various language phenomena whenever they show up in the news, including sign languages, endangered languages, hyperpolyglots, and conlangs.

A while ago, you interviewed Brazilian translator, Nicole Rodrigues, which was a very pleasant read. In fact, our upcoming issue contains a special feature on translation; what are your thoughts on translation?

I did a little French to English translation as a research assistant during my undergraduate programme, but otherwise I don’t have much of a background in it. I do think people underestimate translation as a field: it takes more than just speaking two languages to be able to translate between them really well. As a linguist, I think it’s probably useful for translators to study linguistics, but there are translation-specific things that you also need to know. I wouldn’t consider myself a translator just because I’m a linguist.

One thing I came across recently about translation that I found interesting was translation into sign languages. While most translation is done into the first language of the translator, sign interpretation is a weird case where the people doing those translations are generally second-language speakers, unless the translator is a hearing child of deaf parents, which is fairly rare. So really good interpretation between sign language and a spoken language involves several people: first, a non-native, hearing translator interprets the spoken language into basic sign language, and then a native, deaf signer renders that into better sign language for the audience. I don’t have any special knowledge about this, but it’s something I hadn’t considered before.

Thanks so much for talking to us Gretchen. It’s been a great pleasure.


Gretchen McCulloch writes about pop linguistics for a variety of locations, including Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog and The Toast. She also blogs daily at, a very popular destination for pop linguistics enthusiasts. Follow Gretchen on Twitter (@GretchenAMcC).

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