What Does a Linguist Do?

In strictest terms, a linguist is a specialist in linguistics, which is the study of human language, as opposed to the study of one language. However, in common and military parlance, a linguist is also someone who specializes in one or a group of languages and offers translation, interpreting and other services. Linguists of both types work in a wide variety of fields and have a number of different specializations. This article will help you understand the career possibilities of jobs in linguistics.

The Field

Linguistics as a field is concerned with the description and explanation of human language as a concept, as it stands. That is, a linguist is not a grammarian, and does not attempt to enforce rules within or impose rules on a language (prescriptivism), instead observing and documenting language as it is spoken (or otherwise employed, in the case of non-spoken languages, like sign language). Linguistics concerns itself with a number of sub-fields such as phonetics (the physical properties of produced and perceived language signals), morphology (the study of the structure of words and their modifications), syntax (the ways in which words combine to form grammatical expressions) and semantics (the study of the meaning of words and phrases) among others.


According to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), the beginning of the modern discipline of linguistics can be linked to the 19th-Century discovery of the links between seemingly unrelated languages spoken in Europe and and on/around the Indian subcontinent. It was determined that these Indo-European languages shared a common ancestor language, Proto-Indo-European (PIE). (For more on PIE, see Resources below.) This is the first example of a large-scale historical linguistic project, and historical linguistics remains an important part of the field. Since then, linguistics has expanded to include the studies of the structures, meaning and social importance of language.


Although linguists work in various sub-fields (described below), the common feature of careers in the field of linguistics is the description and explanation of how languages works. For instance, linguists can collect and catalog the sounds or signs within a language; analyze how these are organized into words, phrases and sentences; report on which combinations are and are not allowed by a language's descriptive (not prescriptive) grammar and compare the structures of one language to another to determine relationships between languages. Some linguists study specifically how the body and mind are used to produce the elements of language, while still others examine how language is used between people and between peoples.


There are many different types of linguists, only some of which can be discussed here. Clinical linguists are concerned with language usage problems and often work as speech pathologists. Developmental linguists study issues like language acquisition (learning to use a native or non-native language) in individuals, while evolutionary linguists study how language changes through time throughout the species. Language typologists endeavor to uncover commonalities that might be found across all human language. Neurolinguistics and psycholinguistics are fields studying the brain and cognition in relationship to language use, and sociolinguists study the social function and use of language. In addition to these fields, the military and some other groups refer to language specialists as linguists; these people are employed to translate and interpret between two or more languages, to gather and encode/decode intelligence, and in other ways.


The field of linguistics has contributed greatly to our understanding of a diverse array of human endeavors. It has helped us trace our common roots as a species, helped to understand the functioning of the brain and our language production capabilities and offered an interpretive tool for many human interactions. Linguists specializing in language or a family of languages offer opportunities for cultural interaction and knowledge exchange and improve the general quality of global communication.