Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How Many Linguists Are There? 5379.

Previously, I ranted, just a bit, about the suggestion that there are more linguists than languages. I guessed that, in fact, this may not be true. Thanks to the LSA update email that was just sent out, I was able to follow up a bit. That email referenced the results of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ survey of linguistics departments (pdf, it doesn't load every time, so repeated clicking might be warranted). Table LN1 (below) gives an estimated 1630 faculty member in linguistics departments across the United States. That strikes me as a fair base  to start a back-of-the-napkin estimation of total linguists worldwide (I noted in my previous rant the problems with defining a linguist, but I'll take this survey as my authority for now).

Let the number games begin.  First, let's assume that this initial estimation is conservative. I'll throw in another 10% to make up for that. Let's assume there are about 1793 linguists in the US.  I think it's fair to assume there are about as many linguists in Europe (though you'd never know it by the poor rate at which American linguists cite Europeans, but that's another rant). So that's another 1793 for Europe. I'd wager that there are at best an equal number of linguists in the rest of the world as in either the States or Europe, so that's another 1793.

By this estimation, there are approximately 5379 linguists in the world (1793 x 3). That sounds about right to me. And if this is correct, then my original point stands, there are NOT more linguists than languages.


Anonymous said...

Strikes me as a gross underestimation. I will leave aside the fact that in this post, you reduced the original issue of "linguists in universities" to just plain linguists worldwide (because then I think its even more grossly understated).

My basic issue is that the implicit assumption you make is that all, or even most trained linguists end up sitting in universities. I think of linguistics as being a practical liberal art -- linguists being in demand for some technical projects (speech recognition, automatic translation, search parsing, etc), and more mundane jobs like manual translation.

Even in completely impractical liberal arts (say political science), most trained political scientists would NOT be captured in a survey of liberal arts department employees -- they are overwhelmingly businessmen, high school teachers, homemakers, etc.

Most studying linguistics in universities will not end up on university payrolls... they will get trained in linguistics (whether that involves learning a rare language or french apostrophe usage), and then move on to something with economic incentives.

Chris said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I understand your concern. My estimation was intended to be of essentially academic linguists worldwide. I knew there would be a categorical problem when I was writing the post and chose not to address it.

I freely admit that I take a restrictive view on what makes a linguist. I do not accept translators, polyglots, engineers, teachers, or a whole host of professionals whose jobs happen to involve language in some way as linguists.

I base my definition on the skill set. And the skill set of an academic linguist is very different than that of the list I just mentioned and the one you suggested.

So, for example, a native speaker of Czech who is hired by a speech recognition company to provide various services does not count as a linguist to me. I also don't think of Dan Jurafsky as a linguist, though I respect his contribution to FrameNet.

That distinction does not trivialize their skills; it simply recognizes that their skills are categorically different than an academic linguist (i.e., someone with a PhD in linguistics). And that categorical distinction is critical to my original rant, which this post grew out of.

So I remain comfortable with the estimation.

K. said...

I see an entirely different underestimation in your numbers. The original post concerned people with the skill set necessary to describe the languages of the world. While a native-speaker translator, a businesswoman who did a B.A. in linguistics, or even Dan Jurafsky might not have the requisite skills for this task, your accounting misses a huge group of people who can and who, in fact, ARE doing exactly this kind of work.

I speak, of course, of SIL International, whose 2009 annual report boasts "5,500 active personnel." Now, while it's not exactly clear how many of these people are trained linguists, even if we assume that half of them are, it expands upon your estimate by 50%.

There are of course, separate but similar groups, as well as independent research labs, think tanks and the like which employ trained and capable linguists. While these groups might be few in number and small in size, they are nonetheless nontrivial when dealing with such small numbers in the first place.

Chris said...

Touché, K., well played, well played indeed. Hmmm, I'll need to sober up to respond appropriately, but I may have a right proper volley to lob back at you yet, but you have given me pause.

Nonetheless, you are the one who opened the Pandora's Box of deciding exactly who should count as a linguist. Hearts will be broken, I assure you. Dreams shall be destroyed, and weak men will weep as we tease this one apart. Surely none will be happy when all is said and done (that's the wine talking, I'll be more coherent tomorrow).

David B said...

I just got pointed to this post based on a conversation i was having with someone recently, and so i’m coming into this way late, but i see another underestimation in your count: You base your estimate on linguists in departments of linguistics.

I’d suggest that most academic linguists are probably in departments other than linguistics (mainly in the languages, but also in psychology, computer science, and so on). In fact, i suspect that the number of those linguists in the United States who, like me, are based in departments of English may well be greater than the number in linguistics departments.

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