Learn English – Which is the older sense of the word “linguist”


I have been listening to some rants on YouTube against people learning a bunch of languages calling themselves "linguists".

I'm personally interested in both linguistics and languages as a hobby but I have no official training and certainly no qualifications in either.

My instinct was that the ranter was kind of right in his opinion that people who speak many languages are not linguists. But I was uncomfortable with his opinion that you had to have certain pieces of paper to be called a linguist, I think "post doctorate" from memory.

So I looked up "linguist" in some imperfect online dictionaries and was surprised to find both senses. Here's the defs from oxforddictionaries.com (chosen at random):

  1. A person skilled in foreign languages.
  2. A person who studies linguistics.

Now I don't have access to a better dictionary on historical principles from my current location.

I would like to know which of these senses is the original one?

My original opinion was the latter sense but on thinking about it I now expect it to be the former. I doubt the word would be a back-formation from "linguistics".

As a side question, would the first sense now be considered to be colloquial or at least nontechnical or outdated?

Best Answer

The earliest sense of linguist simply means a skilled speaker, such as a rhetorician (Online Etymology Dictionary):

linguist (n.) 1580s, “a master of language, one who uses his tongue freely,” a hybrid from Latin lingua “language, tongue” (see lingual) + -ist. Meaning “a student of language” first attested 1640s.

The original sense survives in the double entendre cunning linguist. The word didn’t refer to the study of language until later, and to linguistics much, much later:

linguistics (n.) “the science of languages,” 1847; see linguistic; also see -ics.

linguistic (adj.) 1856, from French linguistique (1833); see linguist + -ic. The use of linguistic to mean “of or pertaining to language or languages” is “hardly justifiable etymologically,” according to OED, but “has arisen because lingual suggests irrelevant associations.”

Before that, the study of language was called philology.

philology (n.) Meaning “science of language” is first attested 1716 (philologue “linguist” is from 1590s; philologer “linguistic scholar” is from 1650s); this confusing secondary sense has not been popular in the U.S., where linguistics is preferred.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a renowned philologist.