During the past year, we started to mark the number of times people say “I’m not a linguist” (sometimes followed by, “but…”) during sign language and Deaf Studies conferences. Indeed we noticed that presenters, and members from the audience who comment or ask questions, have a habit of apologising for themselves before making their point or asking their question. We noticed that many people are not aware what they are actually doing when they say this, until we pointed this out to them. We too have been guilty of this practice of downplaying ourselves when we talk about language. Today we were at an applied linguistics roundtable (not specifically about sign languages), and (not?) surprisingly, one person working in the area of culture and language said: “I’m not a linguist” before making her point. So this practice is apparently not limited to sign language and Deaf Studies events.
And note: people do not say “My area is not (sign) linguistics”, but “I’m not a linguist”. We are defining ourselves and our identities as scholars by what we are not. And in doing so we signal that our expertise in language studies doesn’t deserve as much credit as that of linguists. We are putting linguists on a pedestal, as if they are the only ones who are allowed to make claims about language. Instead we could say: “I’m coming from this/that area/discipline” (such as language policy, anthropology, applied linguistics, interpreting, education, and sign language work/advocacy). Many people working in many disciplines have done invaluable research into all aspects of language.
We think it is time to stop this weird practice of apologizing for our not-being-a-linguist. Not only linguists can talk about language. We can too, and so can you.
Annelies Kusters and Maartje De Meulder (not linguists, sorry ;-))