You may well wonder what a five-minute linguist might be. I’ll leave you to ponder that question.
Before you do that, here are some of John McWhorter’s opening remarks to the third annual five-minute linguist competition:
You try to explain to somebody out in the real, wide wide world what linguistics is, and you can see just from the look in their eye — they don’t usually say it, but you can tell from that look in their eye — that they think that to be a linguist is something in between being some sort of U.N. interpreter and being what used to be called a Mrs. Grundy, somebody who’s really interested in people’s “proper grammar.”
So what does a linguist do? This competition featured eight linguists, each of whom had only five minutes to explain a bit of what they do. (We see something like this at math conferences as well, but limited to even less time than five minutes.) What makes it a competition comes at the end, when the audience and the judges vote on whose presentation was the best.
The eight presenters, along with their possibly esoteric topics, were as follows:
Michelle Cohn (University of California, Davis): Phonologically motivated phonetic repair strategies in Siri- and human-directed speech
Andrew Cheng (University of California, Berkeley): Style-shifting, Bilingualism, and the Koreatown Accent
Kristin Denlinger (University of Texas, Austin) & Michael Everdell (University of Texas, Austin): A Mereological Approach to Reduplicated Resultatives in O’dam
Jessi Grieser (University of Tennessee): Talking Place, Speaking Race: Topic-based style shifting in African American Language as an expression of place identity
Kate Mesh (University of Haifa): Gaze decouples from pointing as a result of grammaticalization: Evidence from Israeli Sign Language
Jennifer Schechter (University at Buffalo): What Donald Trump’s ‘thoughts’ reveal: An acoustic analysis of 45’s coffee vowel
Ai Taniguchi (Carleton University): Why we say stuff
Bruno Ferenc Segedin (University of California, Davis) & Georgia Zellou (University of California, Davis): Lexical frequency mediates compensation for coarticulation: Are the seeds of sound change word-specific?
Even if you go no further, you do get a picture of some of the wide variety of topics that linguists study — and perhaps, by elimination, some of what they do not study.
But I’m sure you’re waiting with bated breath to find out who the winner was. The answer is the seventh speaker: Canadian linguist Ai Tanuguchi. You wonder, of course, what the title “Why we say stuff” might mean. Go watch her segment (starting at 1:01:37), and you will find out. It will only take you five minutes, after all. More importantly, you’ll find out a tiny piece of what linguists do, and the answer will probably surprise you.