2009 FirstStep.me Career Article of the Year!
Dialectologist (pronounced “di’ a-lec-tol’ o-gist”.)
Dialectologists, or linguists, as they are more commonly known, study the origins, structures and development of human languages, be it for schools, universities, or a country’s government. A mammoth and heavily specialised task I’d expect, given how I have trouble just pronouncing the job title. Some of the things that dialectologists do include studying a language to determine the way it is used, how certain words in that language came about, how/why a language has changed over time, and how the exact same language can differ between regions (i.e. differing dialects and the like). For example, how did the words “mojo”, “phat” and “wop” come about? Did the word “picnic” really come about from brutal acts of racism? Was the word “nice” really an insult at some point in time? It’s a dialectologist’s job to find all of this out.
Apart from working with more common languages, many dialectologists also devote their time to preserving endangered languages. Yes, you heard right: endangered languages. Languages are in just as much danger of dying out as dinosaurs and dodos. When a language is not used anymore, it becomes extinct – just look at Latin if you want a modern day example of how a language can decline this way. To help preserve a language, a dialectologist will need to enter into the society that uses the language, live amongst its people in order to learn the language from them, and then document and revitalise the language through education of others. While this could mean going to France and living it up while mastering Francoprovençal, it could also mean going to more rugged areas of the world, like Waiwai (in Brazil) or Xinjiang (in China) to learn Karahawyana and Sarikoli respectively. In this respect, dialectologists are very much like explorers!
Many universities and tertiary institutions cater for people interested in dialectology. Usually, the Arts and/or Science faculties of an institution will offer the specific degree in Linguistics, which is the first step to becoming a full-fledged dialectologist. From there, one should complete an Honours, Masters or Doctorate degree in Linguistics. Also, to help prepare for this eventual career path, one should study subjects like English, History, Social Studies, and other languages at school. You’ll also need to have good research and communication skills to do well in this job.
Have some skill with languages? Then dialectology is definitely for you. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be able to bust out words like “callipygian”, “didaskaleinophobia” and “emacity” at opportune times? Also, if you enjoy travel and meeting new people, dialectology can take you to places you can’t even pronounce, let alone heard of. And finally, if you want to do something that’ll have an impact on future generations, how amazed will your grandkids be when you tell them you saved an entire language?
• Find more meanings of words like “angel”, “bogey” and “chow” here.
• Find a list of endangered languages here.
• For the rest of us who have trouble with English just as it is, the English dictionary is now online in a variety of places! My favourite is here.
• Challenge a friend to a tongue-twister duel with one of the beauties listed here.