The Turkic Languages: What Are Their Similarities and Differences?

The Turkic Languages: What Are Their Similarities and Differences?

The Turkic language family, a part of the Altaic language family, consists of 23 different languages, spoken by close to 200 million people, throughout Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, as well as many Asian regions. The earliest written example of the Turkic language were inscriptions found in Mongolia, near the Orhon River, dating from the 8th century, written in Old Turkic. Six Turkic languages have been officially recognised as the official language of their country (Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek, Turkish, Kyrgyz).

The different Turkic languages can be categorised by their geographic location into six different groups: Oghuz (Southwestern), Kipchak (Northwestern), Karluk (Southeastern), Siberian (Northeastern), Oghur and Arghu. Some of the languages spoken most prominently in the six different groups are Turkish, Turkmen, Azeri (Oghuz), Tatar and Kazakh (Kipchak), Uzbek and Uyghur (Karluk), and Yakut (Siberian).

 

Similarities

There are numerous similarities between the Turkic languages. Most of the Turkic languages have a shared vocabulary, phonology, morphology, and syntax. One such illustration of the similarities between the Turkic languages is their similar vowel harmony. Turkish and Azeri vowels, to give an example, consist of a,e,ı,i,o,ö,u,ü (Turkish) and a,e,é,ı,i,o,ö,u,ü (Azeri).

Regarding syntax, all the Turkic languages use the SOV (subject-object-verb) word order, however if an adjective is used to describe a noun, it precedes the noun in the order of the sentence. For example, the Turkish proverb “Ağır kazan geç kaynar” (“the heavy cauldron takes longer to boil”, meaning “great things are done slowly”) ends with the verb “kaynamak” (to boil) and begins with the adjective “ağır” (heavy) followed by the subject of the sentence “kazan” (kettle). The translation of this proverb in other Turkic languages, like Azeri, Turkmen or Kazakh, follows the same word order rule: “Ağır qazan gec qaynayar” (Azeri), “Agyr gazan gic gaýnar” (Turkmen), “Awur qazan keş qaynaydi” (Kazakh).

Turkic languages are also agglutinative languages. This means that some words in the Turkic languages are formed through the morphological process of agglutination through which different words are combined to express a single meaning. In the Uzbek language, one might hear or see an agglutination like “tushunyapsizmi”, which translated to English literally means “understanding-you-do-?”, or “Do you understand?”. The compound phrase “tushun-yap-siz-mi” is formed by the combination of the morpheme “yap” (“-ing”), the verb stem “tushun-“ (to understand”), the singular  informal pronoun “siz” (“you” ) and the question mark, “mi”.

Another good example of the shared similarities between the Turkic languages is their shared vocabulary. For example, this can be observed in the words for the numbers one to five in the Turkic languages:

Azerbaijani: bir, iki, üç, dörd, beş

Kazakh: bir, yeki, üsh, tort, bes

Kyrgyz: bir, iki, üch, tort, besh

Turkish: bir, iki, üç, dört, beş

Turkmen: bir, iki, uch, dört, besh

Uzbek: bit, ikki, uch, tort, besh

 

Differences

A primary example of the differences between the Turkic languages is the script and alphabets the languages use. Over the course of time, the scripts, or alphabet, used for the Turkic languages have differed. For instance, after many countries in which the Turkic languages were spoken became adopted Islam as their primary religion, the Arabic script was utilised by all Turkic-speaking people.

However, when many Turkic speaking countries became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the Soviet government pursued a policy of Latinisation of the Soviet countries. This led to the introduction of the New Turkic Alphabet, which was used for a period during the 1920s and the 1930s, in the non-Slavic regions of the USSR, such as Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. By 1936, as part of the new Constitution of the Soviet Union, the Cyrillic alphabet was instead made the official alphabet of the Turkic languages, replacing the Latinised alphabet.

The Turkish language also underwent many different alterations as part of the reforms introduced by Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey. Starting in 1928, the Turkish script, influenced by Persian and Arabic, was latinised and replaced with a new Latin alphabet which now constitutes the Modern Turkish language. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, some of the former Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan have used the Latinised Turkish alphabet as the basis for the Latinisation of their languages.

The Oghuz, Karluk and Kipchak languages, such as those spoken in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, all utilise a Latin script. Nonetheless, there are variations in the different scripts used within the different language groups. In the Oghuz group, the Azerbaijani language uses a Perso-Arabic alphabet instead of Latin. Moreover, in the Kipchak group, the Kyrgyz language uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Contrastingly, the Siberian Turkic languages, which are mainly spoken in Russia, use the Cyrillic alphabet.

Another example of the differences between the Turkic languages is the distinction between Common Turkic and Bulgar Turkic. The Common Turkic languages are those spoken by the majority of the Turkic language speaking population. However, around 1.4 million people in the Volga region of Russia speak a language known as Chuvash, the only surviving language from the Oghur branch of the Turkic languages. The Chuvash language uses a Cyrillic script, like Kyrgyz and the Siberian Turkic languages, but is classified as a ‘r’ language, whilst the Common Turkic languages are ‘z’ languages. This is the result of a linguistic phenomenon called rhotacism, which changes the speech sound from ‘z’ to ‘r’. Consequently, the letter ‘r’ is used for words in the Chuvash language, which in languages like Turkish use the letter z instead. For example, the Chuvash word for the number nine is “tăxxăr”, and the same word in Turkish is “dokuz”.

 

In Conclusion

The Turkic languages share some mutual intelligibility through similar vocabulary, a shared syntax order and other phonological similarities, like vowels, but it would be wrong to assume that every Turkic language is the same, especially if you are an interpreter or translator. One should recognise that within each Turkic language there are individual characteristics, such as different scripts, like Arabic, Cyrillic or Latin, or different historical contexts or influences, such as the influence of the USSR on Soviet Turkic languages. If you require translation or interpreting services in any of the Turkic languages, or any other language, you can get a quote here from Crystal Clear Translation.

Romanian and Moldovan – Twins, Sisters, or Cousins?

Romanian and Moldovan – Twins, Sisters, or Cousins?

by Phoebe Harrison

The existence, transformation, and use of language is often a good way to look at the socio-political background of any country or region. This is particularly true when we look to Eastern Europe, where (especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union) questions of ethnicity, nationality, and language have often been a contentious issue, particularly recently.

 

The linguistic debate that exists between Romanians and Moldovans is no exception. The question ‘Are Romanian and Moldovan the same language?’ will get you a range of different answers, depending on who you ask.

 

The Romanian government, and indeed many Romanians, consider Moldovan and Romanian to be one and the same. At the same time, many Moldovans recognise ‘Moldovan’ as a separate language, particularly in the break-away region of Transnistria, where the language spoken is uniformly referred to by this name.

 

In truth, Moldovan is a ‘breakaway’ branch of Daco-Romanian, the name given to the standard, most widely spoken dialect of Romanian (distinguishing it from dialects spoken in North Macedonia, Greece, Albania, and parts of Bulgaria, known broadly as Aroromanian, Megleno-Romanian, and Istro-Romanian).

 

So, are Romanian and Moldovan the same language? The short answer is ‘sort of’. To understand the differences and similarities between the two linguistic entities, it is necessary to look at the history of both Romania and Moldova to understand how such a dilemma came to be.

 

Pre-20th century

Before the First World War and the establishment of the Soviet Union, the issue of whether Romanians and Moldovans formed a single ethnic group was up for debate. Some scholars argued that Moldovan peasants had experienced a different political environment and missed the development and spread of a pan-Romanian political and national consciousness. Therefore, the Moldovan identity, and therefore the type of language they spoke, already felt quite separate even prior to the Soviet Union.

 

The Soviet Period

The idea of distinction between the two languages was reinforced under the Soviet government (Moldova was under Soviet control from 1924-1991, and Romania from 1944-1989), with the state emphasizing differences between the Romanian and Moldovan people, despite the similarity of the languages they spoke. One major difference between the two languages was that Romanian was (and still is) written using the Latin script, while Moldovan (known back then as ‘Moldavian’) was written in the Cyrillic script, which furthered the idea of the Moldovan language’s separate identity.

 

 

Post-Independence and Modern Day

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of both Romanian and Moldova, there has been some back and forth in terms of policy and public opinion when it comes to the question whether the two languages are actually just one language. In 1989, Moldovan largely began to use the Latin script again, tying it closer to Romanian. In 1991, Moldova’s Declaration of Independence used the term ‘Romanian’ to describe the language spoken in the country. However, the 1994 Constitution declared ‘Moldovan’ as the country’s official language. Then, in 2003, the Moldovan government adopted a law that considered ‘Romanian’ and ‘Moldovan’ as glottonyms of the same language (i.e that Romanian and Moldovan are just different names for the same entity). In an attempt to ‘seal the deal’,

in December 2013 the Constitutional Court of Moldova ruled that the Declaration of Independence takes precedence over the Constitution and that the state language should, in fact, be called Romanian.

This constant linguistic tug of war was far from over in 2013, however – in 2017, the presidential website under Igor Dodon saw the Romanian language option changed to Moldovan, to be ‘in accordance with the constitution’. This was reversed on the 24th December 2020, the day Maia Sandu assumed office.

 

As we can see, the issue is ongoing, at least politically – but what do the Moldovan people themselves think? In short, they are also divided.

 

In a 2004 census, 16.5% (558,508) of the 3,383,332 people living in Moldova stated Romanian as their native language, whereas 60% of respondents declared it was Moldovan. Interestingly, most of the former group resided in more urban and metropolitan areas, while those in the latter group were from more rural regions within the country. More recently, the 2014 census showed that 54% of Moldovans call their language Moldovenească (Moldovan), while 24% refer to it as Română (Romanian).

 

There is also the issue of Transnistria, the aforementioned unrecognised breakaway state within the Moldova region. Here, Moldovan is recognised as an official language, alongside Russian and Ukrainian – this region has also reverted to the use of the Cyrillic script. Because of this, there are some who argue that ‘Moldovan’ has ties to Russia and the Russian language, and as a result, many reject the term in order to reject Russian influence on Moldova and Romania.

 

Despite this concern, the general consensus seems to show that there is still an active desire by a majority for Moldovan to be recognised as separate from Romanian, regardless of how linguistically similar they may be. Only time will tell how this desire plays out.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Though it is true that Romanian and Moldovan are hugely mutually intelligible, with the main differences between the two lying in pronunciation and certain nouns and expressions, one thing is markedly clear – the desire and effort to either homogenise or seperate the two entities is mostly a political, not linguistic, issue. Therefore, the answer to the question of whether they are the same or not is mostly a question of personal views and preferences.

Multilingualism and Employment – Jobs Ideal for Polyglots

Multilingualism and Employment – Jobs Ideal for Polyglots

By Phoebe Harrison

Though everyone has a different reason for learning another language, many people choose to do so for job purposes. This is not unsensible, as it is a universally acknowledged truth that having more than one language under the belt makes any CV ten times more attractive to potential employers, giving multilingual people that much-needed edge in a crowded job-hunting market. If you fall into the category of ‘bilingual people considering their job options’, then this list will hopefully enlighten you as to what choices you have, career-wise.

 

Translator

Perhaps the most obvious job on the list, working as a translator involves translating one written language into the other while retaining the meaning and tone of the original text. A diverse career, translation work can be found in across many sectors, such as marketing, science, and entertainment. Though a great deal of translation work is freelance, there are many positions that require more long-term contract-based roles, especially if working in localisation or legal circles.

 

Qualifications

Though officially a degree or equivalent certificate is not always required to be a translator (fluency and the ability to write in the target language is enough), having certain qualifications will increase your chances of finding work. Some common qualifications/degrees include:

  • Modern Languages Degree
  • Translation Studies or a Postgraduate Degree in Translation
  • Business, Law, or Science Degrees alongside Languages
  • CIOL Level 7 Diploma of Translation

If you have none of the above, it is still possible to gain relevant experience through volunteering translation services with organisations like Translators Without Borders, or simply providing a portfolio of any relevant past translation work.

 

Salary and Working Hours

If working as a freelance translator, your hours will be flexible and will largely suit you and your schedule, but it is necessary to be able to keep up with deadlines. Working as an in-house translator will normally entail a standard 9-5 workday.

Because of the nature of the job, translator salaries vary massively. Freelance rates are usually determined based on the word count of the translations provided as well as document type – more experienced freelancers will be able to set higher rates. Depending on your experience and what material you are translating as an ‘in house’ translator, you could be paid very well or a very basic fee – dealing with important documents (such as medical and legal items) or translating from ‘rarer’ languages will usually warrant higher rates of pay.

 

Interpreter

The ‘spoken’ side of translation, interpretation is the process of listening to, understanding, and memorising content in one language and then reproducing it in another. There are different types of interpreting jobs: conference, business, and public service. Though more consistent than written translation, the majority of interpreting roles are usually also freelance in nature.

 

Qualifications

Though having any proven experience of interpreting work is a bonus, most employers will prefer candidates with formal qualifications, as interpretation jobs often require industry specific knowledge – instruction in interpreting will often cover different areas, such as medical and legal translation. Some of the main interpreting degrees and diplomas include:

  • Modern Languages Degree
  • Postgraduate Interpreting/Translation Studies
  • Diploma in Public Service Interpreting (DPSI)

 

Salary and Working Hours

As with translation, interpretation salaries and working hours vary depending on the content you are interpreting, the company you are working for, and your level of experience. Freelance hours are flexible and most ‘in house’ jobs will usually adhere to standard business hours, However, interpreting positions related to medical care or police procedures will often require the translator to be available on demand regardless of the hour.

Salary also changes depending on your status and experience – experienced freelancers can set higher rates that correspond with minutes spent interpreting. Working environments like large-scale conferences will often pay better, and the higher paying interpreting jobs are more readily available in the private sector and abroad.

 

Teacher (MFL or EFL)

A popular (and very stable) job choice amongst language graduates, teaching a foreign language from a secondary level onwards is a very rewarding job that pays comparatively well. Alternatively, you may also choose to teach English as a foreign language (EFL) while abroad in a country where your other language is spoken – there are many schemes that allow this, such as British Council and TEFL.

 

 

Qualifications

To work as a secondary school teacher in England and Wales, it is necessary to acquire Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) by completing Teacher Training – it is uncommon that a school will accept anyone without QTS. It is also obligatory to have a degree in Modern Languages or at least fluency, in some cases. The two main ways of acquiring teacher status are:

  • Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE)
  • Salaried Teacher Training (Teach First, School Direct etc.)

Qualifications for working as a teacher abroad will vary depending on country but working via a British-led scheme will require either a degree in your chosen language or a certificate of different levels of fluency.

 

Salary and Working Hours

Newly qualified teachers will earn around £25, 714, which will rise in increments. Experienced teachers can move up in the role and increase their pay, with principal teacher and head teacher roles paying up to £100,000 per year.

Most teachers work 39 weeks a year with paid holidays. The average workday may vary slightly depending on the school, but general teaching hours range from 8:30am to 3:30/4:00 pm. It is worth noting that most teachers stay behind after teaching is finished to complete other duties such as marking work or syllabus preparation.

 

Consultant

A role taking many different forms, consultants are required to offer advice and expertise to organisations to help them improve their overall performance in terms of management, profitability, strategy, and operations. As most large businesses operate with the international market in mind, potential employees with a knowledge of foreign languages and cultures are seen as an important asset to have.

 

Qualifications

Most consultancy careers are only open to graduates (of any subject), but school leavers with proven prior experience in business may also often be eligible. Though many types of work experience are attractive, having prior involvement in internships or business courses is a bonus for anyone considering a career in consultancy – for linguists, any occasion of having worked abroad in any company will look particularly promising.

 

Salary and Working Hours

Depending on your position of seniority, consultants can end up earning more than £120,000 annually with high-end roles, but an average junior salary is between £25-30,000.

Consultant working hours can often be long and demanding, regularly moving outside of the standard 9-5 rota – these hours will often change depending on which project you are working on.

Humanitarian/Aid Worker

A challenging but rewarding endeavour, having knowledge of a foreign language may make you an ideal candidate for humanitarian work. Because many humanitarian organisations work on an international scale, recruiters actively seek out those with the ability to speak the languages of countries that are in need.

 

Qualifications

Degrees are not obligatory, but are preferred, particularly in anything relating to international development. Employers in international aid and development also value prior relevant work experience which can include volunteering with charities, fundraising, and marketing. From a language viewpoint, there are many organisations, such as Translators Without Borders, who are ideal for language-related volunteer work in this sector.

 

Salary and Working Hours

Typical starter salaries with UK-based NGOs start around £18-25,000 per year depending on location and experience. Overseas positions will pay slightly higher, ranging from £21-37,000 a year, with salary dependent on specific responsibilities and base country.

Working hours for overseas positions are impossible to predict, especially when working in response to emergencies. More business-related roles based in the UK will most likely adhere to general 9-5 working hours.

 

Marketing/PR 

A hugely diverse industry, working in marketing or public relations means co-ordinating promotional campaigns and strategies to help sell company products and services, as well as engaging with the public to improve the company’s image and reputation. Because multilingual people and language graduates in general are likely to have an interest or at least, an awareness, of foreign markets and cultures, many organisations actively seek these groups out in order to help orchestrate business on an international scale in helping to organise foreign business campaigns.

 

Qualifications

As with most large corporations, employment opportunities are open to anyone with a degree or prior relevant experience, in some cases. However, it is useful to have some knowledge or involvement in advertising, communications, or design.

 

Salary and Working Hours

The starting salary for most marketing related jobs is around £18-25,000 per year depending on experience. After gaining more experience it is possible to move to a more senior role, with pay ranging from anywhere between £40 – 100,000 per year, the latter figure being common amongst those in director roles.

Typical working hours are 9-5 from Monday to Friday, though it is highly likely that employees will be required to work some evenings or weekends when organising events or high-scale marketing campaigns.

 

 

Concluding Thoughts

This list provides a general glimpse at the opportunities available to anyone with knowledge of a foreign language, but there is a plethora of other roles out there that will benefit from the skills gained by learning another language, such as cultural sensitivity, communication skills, and an eye for accuracy and detail.

If you or anyone you know requires translation or interpretation services in any language, visit us here at Crystal Clear Translation for a quote.

Memorisation vs. Immersion – Which is the Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language?

Memorisation vs. Immersion – Which is the Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language?

Memorisation vs. Immersion – Which is the Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language?

By Phoebe Harrison  

 

In schools, universities, and online, there are a myriad of people and publications telling us the ‘best’ way to learn another language – at least from their perspective. Going through all these different suggested methods, we can generally boil down the learning process to two main approaches – memorisation and immersion. But which is better?

 

Memorisation

Although it seems a tad self-explanatory, memorisation (in basic terms) is the process of committing something to memory for later use, usually by rote learning (a technique focused on repetition of the desired information). In language-learning, this can mean anything from using flashcards, writing new vocabulary down 10 times or repeating expressions, words, and even grammatical rules, out loud.

 

Advantages of Memorisation

  • Provides a more flexible and accessible way of learning – depending on what method you use, practicing your chosen language through memory games or repetitive activities can be done anywhere, from the comfort of your own home to during the daily commute.
  • Multiple resources – thanks to the internet, there are a ton of free, easy to use language learning resources available to anyone who needs them. This ease of access lends itself well to the memorisation approach – it is very straightforward, for instance, to download a short vocabulary list from a website and learn the contents by heart.
  • Easier for audio-visual learners – those who learn through reading or listening may find memorisation to be their go-to approach for learning.
  • Trains the brain outside of language learning – becoming well-practiced in memorisation of language-based information undoubtedly trains the mind to be better able to hang on to other pieces of important information, no matter the topic

 

Disadvantages of Memorisation

  • ‘Theory’ over ‘practice’ – memorisation fosters the learning, rather than the utilisation of, language. Knowing 100 words of vocabulary doesn’t matter if you’re unsure of how to use any of them in a sentence, which is why actually implementing (i.e., speaking or writing) your new knowledge is a vital part of the fluency process.
  • Memory fatigue – rote learning and other memorisation methods may (and often do) lead to boredom and a lack of motivation, which in turn leads to giving up the entire learning process. Stimulation and a willingness to learn is a key part of learning a new language, so reading or writing the same information over and over will drain these two things out of any learner if not combined with other learning methods.
  • Surface level’ understanding – similar to the notion of theory over practice, memorising blocks of information does not always lead to a full understanding of a subject – being able to recite a general definition of a grammatical rule does not always mean being able to comprehend and use it appropriately, for example.
  • A lonely process – though memorisation can no doubt be achieved with the help of a friend (such as testing each other’s knowledge), it is still a very independent approach to learning as it solely concerns the information that a single individual can retain. Learning about another language without being able to share your knowledge and abilities with other like-minded people can be an isolating experience.

 

Immersion

Regarding language-learning, immersion is the process of acquiring new knowledge by placing oneself in a situation where they can directly engage with their chosen language. This can mean anything from watching a programme in that language, attending language exchange groups, or actually being in the country where the language is spoken.

 

Advantages 

  • Fun – the most obvious advantage of immersion-based learning is that it is far more entertaining and emotionally rewarding than memorisation. Listening to foreign music or socialising and practicing with other language learners is much more engaging than staring at flashcards.
  • Because of the methods involved in immersion-based learning, it allows for direct engagement with the culture of the target language, providing context to any obtained knowledge. This way, any possible errors made, and unspoken rules make themselves more apparent to the learner.
  • Fight or flight – choosing to learn through immersion often means placing oneself in a situation where it is necessary to act on instinct rather than on pre-prepared notes. As a result, knowledge is gained through unavoidable experience – for instance, choosing to live in another country to learn the target language forces – or rather, requires – one to use it, whether you feel nervous or not. Though daunting, this fight or flight process is guaranteed to gradually make the learner feel more at ease with their chosen language as time goes on, and less self-conscious about using it.
  • Different motivations – though we all have our own reasons for learning another language, the primary one is to be able to communicate with others. Choosing immersion through language exchange groups, pen-pals, and simply socialising with native speakers of a target language will give the learner a more human reason to improve their fluency, often leaving them feeling twice as determined and motivated.
  • Accessible – there are a surprising number of ways to learn by immersion, at home or on the go. These range from simple methods such as changing a phone or laptop’s language settings to listening to the radio or a podcast in the target language.

 

Disadvantages

  • Requires confidence – most immersion methods demand some level of conviction in oneself, which is often easier said than done for those on the shy side who aren’t used to public speaking or meeting new people.
  • Problems with access – though there are home-based methods of immersion as previously mentioned, the most effective immersion techniques involve speaking and socialising with other speakers (native or otherwise). This is not always possible, as much depends on location and travel costs – even finding someone online to practice with is often less than straightforward.
  • Though immersion enables a ‘learn as you go’ approach, it is vital to have foundational knowledge of any target language, knowledge best acquired by actual study. Though immersive practices are a good way to improve fluency and become more confident, there is a likelihood that there will still be some important learning gaps that must be filled through reading and more traditional learning.

 

Which is better?

Having compiled both the pros and cons of each learning style, it is easier to weigh both learning methods up against each other and decide which is superior.

In short, immersion is. Though memorisation helps retain some of the basic foundational blocks of learning another language that are vital to the overall process, learning through immersive techniques allows the learner to engage with the ‘real-world’ existence of their chosen language, and enables them to learn from mistakes in an organic environment with other people and cultures. Moreover, learning through immersion is something that real life educational institutions have started to implement, with many schools (mostly outside of the UK) favouring bilingual teaching and learning – a testament to its effectiveness.  However, it is important to not write off memorisation completely – like any learning process, the best way forward is through combining study methods, not only to keep things fresh, but to ensure all ‘bases’ are covered – it is one thing finding a person to practice a foreign language with, but it is another to actually know enough about the language to actually talk to them in it!

If you or anyone you know requires translation or interpretation services in any language, visit us here at Crystal Clear Translation for a quote.

Six Influential Linguists That Everyone Should Know About

Six Influential Linguists That Everyone Should Know About

By Phoebe Harrison

When we talk about the ‘great minds’ of history, most people think of famous philosophers, inventors, scientists, and writers – think Socrates, Einstein, Da Vinci, Sklodowska- Curie, Freud, and Dickens. It is certainly true that all these figures and more have had a significant influence on how we see and understand the world. Yet, there is one group of people whose contributions to our physical and intellectual society are so often overlooked – linguists. To rectify this erasure, I have compiled an introductory list of some of the most important names in the history of linguistics, whose work anyone – especially those interested in how language functions – should definitely read.

 

 

Ferdinand de Saussure

Often known as the founding father of modern linguistics and semiotics (the study of signs), Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (b. 1857- d.1913) introduced the theory of Structuralism into the discipline of linguistics, explaining how language is made up of a system of signs (underlying meanings) that are structured by conventions. In short, he proposed the idea of language as a socially structured system that could be viewed from both a synchronic and diachronic viewpoint (how it exists at a certain time and how it develops as time goes on). Saussure also gave a series of important lectures on linguistics and his theories which were later compiled into what became Cours de linguistique générale (‘Course in General Linguistics) that would go on to provide an integral foundation for 20th century structural linguists and the discipline as a whole. Saussure is one of the most important figures in the history of linguistics as his work marked the beginnings of a more theory-based approach to the study of language (moving away from previous more ‘history based’ analysis) and many 20th century linguists used his theories as a starting point for their own work, theories that are still often cited today.

Learn more:  Course in General Linguistics, Mémoire sur le système primitif des voyelles dans les langues indo-européennes

  

 

Noam Chomsky

 Probably the most recognisable name on this list, Noam Chomsky is a world-famous intellectual known just as much for his political activism and criticism as for his formative work in modern linguistics (for this, Chomsky is also often referred to as the ‘father’ of the modern discipline). Though he has written over 100 books on linguistics and is responsible for many different theories and analyses, Chomsky’s most famous contribution to the world of linguistics is his concept of ‘universal grammar’, the idea that all languages have the same underlying structures and laws, simply using different words and sounds on the ‘surface’ level. The theory also proposes that humans are innately equipped with the ability and desire to learn grammar, regardless of our native language. Another of Chomsky’s contributions include the Chomsky Hierarchy, a system that organises formal grammars into different classes based on their complexity. It would take a long time to list all of Chomsky’s ideas and achievements, but he is, in short, one of the most important figures in modern linguistic studies and cognitive science, leaving a lasting influence on both intellectual and socio-political spheres.

 

Learn more: Language and Mind (1968), Syntactic Structures (1957), The Minimalist Programme (1995)

 

 

Umberto Eco 

An author of over fifty novels, Italian writer Umberto Eco was many things – historian, philosopher, critic, and a socio-political commentator. He was also a prominent and important linguist. Specifically, around the area of semiotics, the study of signs, which are defined as anything that communicates something, usually a certain meaning. He introduced a wider audience to the concept and use of semiotics through his literary work, including the award-winning medieval monk murder mystery The Name of the Rose, where semiotic operations are key to several parts of the narrative. Publishing A Theory of Semiotics in 1975, he criticises the theory that the meaning of signs is determined by the objects (thing or event) to which they refer. Eco’s combination of narrative fiction and linguistic philosophy made him one of the foremost thinkers in the field of semiotics and allowed complex theories to be explored and applied through a more approachable medium.

 

Find out more: The Name of the Rose (1980), Mouse or Rat? Translation as Negotiation (2003)

 

 

Robin Lakoff

One of only two women on our list is Robin Lakoff. Lakoff is responsible for making gender a part of the study of linguistics, with her 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place introducing ideas about women’s language (and how women modify their language to suit the world around them) to the field of sociolinguistics. She also developed the ‘politeness principle’, the idea that politeness can be achieved adhering to three main ‘maxims’ – don’t impose, give the receiver options, and make the receiver feel good. In The Language War (2000), Lakoff analysed contemporary events and issues through the lens of linguistics, with examples like the OJ Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky affair. In what is so often a male dominated field of study, Lakoff was instrumental in proving that the study of linguistics cannot be separated from the material realities of sex and gender.

Find out more: Language and Woman’s Place (1975), Context Counts: Papers on Language, Gender, and Power (2017)

 

Eve Clark

The other woman on this list, Eve Clark is a British-born American linguist whose research focuses primarily on first-language acquisition and meaning acquisition. Her work shed light on how humans first acquired language and how children today do the same. Clark’s theories have influenced how some scientists study early years development, as well as improving our understanding about how children learn new things and how they should be taught.

Find out more: First Language Acquisition (2003), Language in Children (2016)

 

Steven Pinker

Last but certainly not least is Canadian American linguist and cognitive phycologist Steven Pinker. Pinker is the author of many wildly successful popular science books – his most famous, perhaps, is 1994’s The Language Instinct. In it, Pinker argues that all humans are born with an innate capacity for language and language learning and argues against Chomsky’s idea that evolutionary theory does not explain the human language instinct. Pinker is one of the foremost figures in modern cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics and is noted to have made linguistics more ‘accessible’ to a wider audience, with books like How the Mind Works intended for general, rather than specific, readers.

Find out more: Words and Rules (1999), Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles (2013)

 

Concluding Thoughts

Anyone who is interested in how language and our relationship with language works (or who is simply looking for some mind-broadening reading) should absolutely start by looking at the output of even one of the above linguists. Thanks to people like Chomsky and Lakoff, we now have a deeper understanding of how our words come to be and the different meanings they may have.

 

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