The Magic Number

This past weekend, I was at a conference that had nothing to do with either Gaelic or linguistics, which meant that I did a fair amount of explaining about both subjects to people who didn’t really know much about either. 

As all linguists know, meeting non-linguists almost always starts off with that question we all love: “How many languages do you speak?”  I am not sure how this question came to be THE question that people ask, but I’ll admit that it’s not a bad question.  At the very least, it is likely to start a conversation about languages and/or linguistics, which is something that everyone can identify with on some level, because everyone speaks at least one language. 

As far as I know, there isn’t a single, universal answer to this question, although sometimes I wish there was.  I wonder if there is a magic number of languages a person needs to speak in order to qualify as a linguist? Or a certain threshhold beyond which one is undoubtedly considered a linguist and hence the conversation will move to other topics?  What would this magic number be?  Somehow two doesn’t seem like enough. Would three languages be enough? Or would it have to be a bigger, more impressive number to win the confidence of the general public?  Does obscurity, rarity, or complexity of a language make any difference?   I am fairly certain that linguists do not compare numbers with each other for bragging rights (and if they do, then those are the kinds of parties I don’t get invited to). :)

In any case, I am very much used to the “how many languages” question by now.  But since I moved to Nova Scotia, the most frequent question I’ve been getting isn’t about how many languages I speak, it’s “Why Gaelic?”  And that one I really wish I had a magic answer for, especially in situations like this weekend, where I found I was having to repeat myself with every new person I met, at every dinner table, and at every social gathering.  The tough thing with Gaelic is that not everyone identifies with it like they do with other languages and linguistics and language in general.  There is sometimes that awful, negative attitude to overcome, whereas with linguistics, people just don’t know what it is, so it’s much easier to explain or change the topic.  As soon as I say Gaelic though, it seems that people almost automatically want to wrinkle their noses and sort of dismiss me. Not everyone, of course, but a lot do, and it irks me so much.     

I really hope that one day soon I’ll figure out a good, conversational, socially acceptable answer for the “Why Gaelic?” question.  I mean, the answer is pretty clear to me in my own mind, and one day I’ll try to explain it here on the blog.  But as of yet, I just haven’t quite come up with a nice, concise way to articulate it to the strangers who want to fight me on it that doesn’t involve a small part of me wanting to smack them upside the head. With words, I mean, not with fists.

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Filed under Gaelic, Linguistics

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