Linguists as Plumbers

I was at the ALS/ILC ‘hypothetical’ last night, and there was a fair airing of the idea that ‘linguists steal our languages when they write them down’.

Consider the following analogy: when your drains are blocked up and Draino doesn’t work, you call a plumber. They come and diagnose the problem, fix it, charge you a heap for it, and perhaps even undertake some preventive measures to make sure the same problem doesn’t recurr. Now, you don’t stop owning your drains because you’ve called in a plumber: you’ve called in someone with expertise in a particular area, a specialist, as it were.

Now, think of linguists like plumbers. The analogy isn’t exact. Linguists usually earn less, for example, but just as plumbers don’t acquire ownership of the pipes they work on, linguists don’t acquire ownership of the languages they work on either. If we are going to adopt the ‘language as ownership’ model, the parallels should be examined.


One response to “Linguists as Plumbers

  1. I think the analogy works okay for linguists who are involved in language preservation, but not so much for linguists who are primarily interested in description and/or theory. Plumbers come only when called; they don’t generally say things like “You have a really interesting system of pipes in your house, and it’s falling apart, so can I come over and take some photographs of it before it’s too late?”

    I think linguists are perhaps more like publishers. Suppose you’ve written a book (as indeed you have!); the publisher will make it possible for other people to read it, both now and in future generations. They will print it in a format that is based both on the natural structure of the text and on the publisher’s house style. The book is still yours–your authorship of it is inalienable, and you retain at least some of the rights to it, but the book now also belongs to the publisher in some sense, and they get to make money from it, too. And in the same way, linguists profit (indirectly, through professional advancement) from the data they gather and publish and analyze, and we talk about So-and-so’s data as if it belonged to the linguist as well as to the speakers.

    The publisher analogy isn’t perfect, either, of course, and I don’t believe that languages are intellectual property in the same way that books are intellectual property, because natural languages by definition are not the deliberate creations of individuals. But I do think it captures some of the nuances in the relationship that the plumber analogy elides.

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