Is there anything inherently “doggy” about the word “dog”? Obviously not—to the French, a dog is a chien, to Russians a sobaka, to Mandarin Chinese-speakers a gǒu. These words have nothing in common, and none seem any more connected to the canine essence than any other. One runs up against that wall with pretty much any word.
Except some. The word for “mother” seems often either to be mama or have a nasal sound similar to m, like nana. The word for “father” seems often either to be papa or have a sound similar to p, like b, in it—such that you get something like baba. The word for “dad” may also have either d or t, which is a variation on saying d, just as p is on b. People say mama or nana, and then papa, baba, dada, or tata,worldwide.
Anyone who happens to know their way around a lot of languages can barely help noticing this eerie similarity. But when it comes to European languages closely related to English, like the Romance and Germanic ones, this isn’t so surprising. After all, these languages are children of what was once one language, which linguists call Proto-Indo-European and was likely spoken on the steppes of what is now Ukraine several millennia ago. So if French has maman and papa, and Italian has mamma and babbo, and Norwegian has mamma and papa, then maybe that’s just a family matter.
Professional linguists work in a number of fields and engage in a range of successful and fulfilling careers. Individuals with degrees in linguistics tend to specialize in particular areas within the field and build their careers around those areas. What follows is an overview of some popular and common careers within linguistics. Linguistics, the scientific study of language. The word was first used in the middle of the 19th century to emphasize the difference between a newer approach to the study of language that was then developing and the more traditional approach of philology. The differences were and are largely matters of attitude, emphasis, and purpose. LINGUIST List is a free resource, run by linguistics students and faculty, and supported primarily by your donations. Even as little as $5 helps immensely. Please support LINGUIST List with a donation.
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Soc. Find 7 ways to say LINGUIST, along with antonyms, related words, and example sentences at Thesaurus.com, the world's most trusted free thesaurus.
But when we’re talking several millennia, even closely related languages have a way of morphing beyond recognition. For example, Welsh is also a child of that language from Ukraine, but neither French nor English has managed to produce words like that town name—Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—that the newscaster Liam Dutton recently became a viral sensation for pronouncing properly. For a member of the same linguistic family, Welsh has struck out pretty far on its own. Yet “mother” and “father” in Welsh are mam and tad.
Did Welsh pick this up from the English spoken amidst it in Great Britain? Perhaps—but the facts are the same with languages English is spoken much less “amidst.” In Africa, Swahili has mama and baba. In the Philippines, Tagalog has nanay and tatay. Fijian has nana and tata. Mandarin, so intimidatingly different from English to the learner, soothes unexpectedly in offering up mama and baba. Chechen in the Caucasus? Naana and daa. Native American languages? Eskimo has anana and ataata; Koasati, spoken in Louisiana and Texas, turns out to have mamma and taata; down further in El Salvador, Pipil has naan and tatah.
It’s tempting to imagine this means that the first humans called their parents mama and dada, and that those two warm, hearty words have survived the slings and arrows of human history to remain in use today. But the notion is too good to be true. Over time in language, sounds smush along their way to becoming new ones, and even the meanings people assign to a word drift all over the place.
Take that language in Ukraine that later became most of the languages of Europe. By comparing today’s languages and tracing backward, we can determine what a lot of the words in that Ukrainian language were, just as we can look at all of today’s mammals and the fossils of their ancestors and know that the first mammal was a rodent-like critter with hair that gave birth to live young. In Proto-Indo-European, the word mregh meant “short.” The Greeks’ version of that word came to refer to the upper arm, which is short, while in Latin it referred to a pastry that looked like crossed arms; the term then passed into French referring not to arms but shoulder straps. All of those words seeped into English later, such that what started as a word meaning “short” became “brachial” (from Greek), “pretzel” (the crossed arms, from Latin), and “bra” (“shoulder strap” became brassiere). The most direct descendant of mregh in English is “merry,” of all things. That which is short is often sweet, such that the word came to mean “short and sweet” and, eventually, just sweet—merry, that is.
Certainly, then, words like mama and dada wouldn’t necessarily stay the same, or even close to the same, in languages around the world and over tens of thousands of years. So what happened?
The answer lies with babies and how they start to talk. The pioneering linguist Roman Jakobson figured it out. If you’re a baby making a random sound, the easiest vowel is ah because you can make it without doing anything with your tongue or lips. Then, if you are going to vary things at all, the first impulse is to break up the stream of ahhh by closing your lips for a spell, especially since you’ve been doing that to nurse. Hence, mmmm, such that you get a string of mahs as you keep the sound going while breaking it up at intervals.
Babies “speaking” in this way are just playing. But adults don’t hear them that way. A baby says “mama” and it sounds as if he’s addressing someone—and the person he’s most likely addressing so early on is his mother. The mother takes “mama” as meaning her, and in speaking to her child refers to herself as “mama.” Voilà: a word mama that “means” mother. That would have happened with the first humans—but more to the point, it has happened with baby humans worldwide, whatever language they are speaking. That means that even as the first language was becoming countless others, this “mama mistake” was recreating “mama” as the word for “Mom,” whatever was going on with words like mregh.
Papa and dada happened for a similar pan-human reason. After babies begin making m with their lips, they pick up making a sound that involves a little more than just putting their lips together—namely, putting them together, holding them that way for a second, and then blowing out a puff of air. That’s p—or, depending on your mood, b. Alternatively, babies also start playing with their mouths a little further back from the lips—on that ridge behind the upper teeth that we burn inconveniently by sipping soup when it’s too hot. That’s where we make a t or a d. The order in which babies learn to make sounds explains why the next closest usual caretaker to mom is so often called papa or baba (or tata or dada).
There’s a similarly mundane explanation for another uncanny pattern among certain words. The linguist Johanna Nichols has noted that in Europe and much of northern Asia, the pronouns for “I” and “you” start with m and t—or something pronounced like t on that burnable ridge in the mouth, s—too often for it to be an accident. English-speakers are familiar with French’s moi and toi, or Spanish’s me and tu. It goes further, with Russian’s menja and tebja, Finnish’s minä and sinä, and even to Eurasian languages further east, like a language of Siberia called Yukaghir that uses met and tet.
Nichols has proposed that the reason a language like Yukaghir’s pronouns for I and you look so much like the mama/tata alternation—as well as why French has moi and toi and English once had me and thou—is because even as these languages have changed over time, the sounds of the words for I and you have been influenced by the way mama and tata differ. The m sound is used for what is closest—mama for Mommy and “me” for the self. The t sound—often learned just after m—is for what’s just one step removed from the closest: Daddy hovering just over there, which we can understand would feel like “you” rather than “(Mommy and) me.”
This time, however, it isn’t the whole world—it’s just a part of Eurasia where this distinction happens to have shaped how pronouns sound. Elsewhere, words for “me” and “you” are, for example, Mandarin’s wǒ and nǐ or Indonesian’s saya and anda.
Otherwise, if we want to know why a word sounds the way it does, there are only glimmers. Indeed, in English, “glimmer” is one of many words starting with gl- that refer to light-oriented things—“glow,” “glare,” “glitter,” “gleam,” “glance,” “glower.” It’s also been shown that humans tend to associate tight sounds like ee with smallness and fleetness. The anthropologist Brent Berlin did a neat experiment in which he played 600 students two words from an obscure language of the Amazon, Huambisa, and asked which one referred to a bird (little and flittery) and which referred to a fish. The words were chunchuíkit and máuts. Almost all of the students intuited that chunchuíkit, with its tweety “chui,” was the bird.
Ultimately, language is vastly more than things like “Me glimmering, Mom!” No theory will ever account for why the words in a sentence like “He couldn’t even get halfway over that wall!” are the way they are. Language is too changeable to allow us that pleasure, standing as we are at the end of a possibly 150,000-year timeline since human speech began.
But we can at least enjoy knowing why we call them the Mamas and the Papas.
FBI Linguists use their knowledge of other cultures and languages to help the FBI fulfill its mission to protect the United States from threats both international and domestic. Linguists work with a team to defend the country against foreign counterintelligence threats, cases of corruption, espionage, cybercrime and other unlawful offenses. All FBI Linguists begin their careers as Contract Linguists.
Learn more about each of the FBI’s foreign language career opportunities, and find out more about our foreign language testing battery, below.
Contract Linguist opportunities are available in many major U.S. metropolitan areas with the FBI and the National Virtual Translation Center (NVTC). Applicants can choose to work with one or both organizations. Contract Linguists are required to work on-site and perform work as mutually agreed upon with the local FBI office. Travel opportunities for this role are possible.
Contract Linguists are considered self-employed and are not eligible to receive government benefits. The FBI may invite the best Contract Linguists to join the FBI as full-time Language Analysts.
Contract Linguists earn an hourly rate as determined by their language proficiency levels, specialized experience and the need for their respective languages in current FBI initiatives. Duties can include, but are not limited to:
Applicants must meet the FBI’s general eligibility requirements and have the ability to work at least 20 hours per week. Successful candidates will exhibit proficiency in English and pass the required components of the FBI’s Foreign Language Test Battery, outlined below.
There is no specific job posting for the Contract Linguist opportunity. Applicants should apply to the Language Talent Network, which can be found by performing a search for the keyword “Language” posted “Anytime” in the Basic Search box here. Before applying, please review our How to Apply page.
Additional positions and information about the FBI’s language program are available in the sections below.
Contract Speaking Proficiency Testers are in charge of making sure that applicants for Contract Linguist, Special Agent, and Language Analyst roles are proficient in the languages for which they are applying. Contract Testers administer Speaking Proficiency Tests over the telephone to applicants and onboard employees.
While they are provided training to execute their role as speech evaluators, Contract Testers are considered self-employed and are not eligible to receive government benefits. As such, a flat rate is paid per test and is best considered as a supplement to other income. The workload is dependent on the current needs of the FBI.
Contract Speakers are allowed to perform the responsibilities of their roles at either their homes or places of work. Depending on their skill level, Contract Testers who reside in the Washington, D.C., area may be eligible for other contract work.
Contract Speaker Tester applicants must:
Foreign Language Program Managers are responsible for prioritizing and managing workloads, managing the distribution of assignments and preparing reports. Opportunities for Foreign Language Program Managers are available at FBI offices around the country.
Those assigned to the FBI Headquarters are tasked with managing a national program related to specific fields, such as language testing, quality, training and education and operations management.
Foreign Language Program Managers assigned to larger FBI Field Offices are responsible for supervising a group of at least three Supervisory Foreign Language Program Coordinators.
The Supervisory Foreign Language Program Coordinators who are supervised by the Foreign Language Program Managers, are responsible for managing a group of language professionals consisting of Language Analysts and/or Contract Linguists. Foreign language ability is not a necessary component for this managerial role.
In order to be considered by the FBI for a role as a Foreign Language Program Manager, the applicant must meet the FBI’s general eligibility requirements and be able to travel while working nights and weekends as needed.Apply Now
The Contract Rater position is an exciting opportunity within the FBI for individuals who are interested in earning supplemental income. Contract Raters are responsible for rating written exams administered as part of the Foreign Language Test Battery. These exams may include translation tests, writing tests and listening summary exams.
Considered self-employed and working on contract for the FBI, Contract Raters earn a flat rate per test administered. Applicants for this role are not eligible to receive government benefits. Workloads for Contract Raters vary and are dependent upon the needs of the FBI.
Applicants who are chosen for the role must complete Contract Rater training onsite in Washington, D.C., meet the FBI’s general eligibility requirements, and score at least an ILR Level 3+ on the writing test as outlined in the Foreign Language Test Battery. Successful candidates must also be available to work at FBI Headquarters during regular business hours.
In most cases, the Language Analyst and Contract Linguist opportunities require that applicants pass listening and reading tests in the foreign language, a translation test from the foreign language into English and speaking tests in both English and the foreign language.
The FBI looks for candidates with skill levels that score in the general professional proficiency range on the Foreign Language Test Battery. In some cases, candidates are accepted with limited working proficiency in the case of rare or hard-to-find languages.
The Interagency Language Roundtable Proficiency Levels chart is a tool that allows applicants to self-assess their foreign language ability prior to taking the formal exam. More information about the Interagency Language Roundtable can be found here.
|Proficiency Levels||Proficiency Ability|
|0 – 0+||No proficiency/memorized proficiency. May have memorized several everyday phrases, but cannot carry on a conversation or read a document.|
|1 – 1+||Elementary proficiency. Can understand or produce simple questions and answers.|
|2 – 2+||Limited working proficiency. Can participate in conversations on routine social demands and limited job requirements. Can understand straightforward material about people, places, and events.|
|3 – 3+||General professional proficiency. Can follow and contribute to a conversation with native speakers and defend personal opinions. Can read and understand large daily newspapers and written material in professional field.|
|4 – 4+||Advanced professional proficiency. Can prepare and deliver a lecture, give a persuasive argument, and carry out a job assignment as effectively as in the native language. Can read and understand virtually all forms of the written language, including complex texts, without a dictionary.|
|5||Functionally native proficiency. Can use the language with complete flexibility, making use of an extensive and precise vocabulary. Can successfully translate virtually all texts with flawless expression. Able to understand fully all forms and styles of speech intelligible to the well-educated native listener, including a number of regional and illiterate dialects, highly colloquial speech and conversations.|
I cannot find a job posting for Contract Linguist on www.fbijobs.gov. Where do I apply?
There is no specific job posting for the Contract Linguist opportunity. You should apply to the Language Talent Network, which can be found by searching for the keyword “Language” posted “Anytime” in the Basic Search.
I received a message saying that I 'did not pass preliminary screening.' Why is this? What should I do?
You have received this message because your responses to the application questions indicate that you do not meet the FBI’s basic requirements and your application has been discontinued. If you think you have received this message in error, please review your responses to ensure that you answered all of the questions and each question as you intended. If you find an error in your application, you may resubmit your interest using the same profile.
Once I submit my application, what can I expect?
You will receive an automatic response indicating that your application has been successfully submitted. Your application will be reviewed and, if you meet the FBI’s needs and criteria, you will be contacted by your local field office to schedule language testing.
I received an error message that says “you have already initiated or completed a submission for 1968-Language Talent Network.” What does this mean and what should I do?
This means one of two things. 1) You have successfully submitted a previous application that must be withdrawn from the “Submissions in Progress” window of the My Career Tools page. 2) You have an application in a draft status waiting to be submitted. In this case, you do not need to withdraw your application, just complete the submission of the pending application.
My college/university/major is not on the Education list. What do I do?
Ensure that your educational experience and all relevant information are reflected on your resume. Resumes are reviewed in addition to the online profile, so this information will still be captured by the case manager.
I have noticed an error in my application. How can I change it?
To maintain the integrity of application responses, you are unable to modify question responses once the application has been submitted. In order to change a response, you must withdraw the application and resubmit.
How can I update the resume I included with my application?
Unfortunately, there is no way to modify a resume once it has been uploaded to an application. If there is a significant change in your resume, you can send the updated version to [email protected]
Do I have to be a United States citizen before I can apply for a Contract Linguist opportunity?
Yes. In order to be considered for a Contract Linguist role, you must be a U.S. citizen.
Do I have to renounce my dual citizenship if I am selected for a Contract Linguist role?
It is not a requirement that you renounce your dual citizenship, but you must be willing to renounce if asked.
Is there an age requirement to be a Contract Linguist?
You must be at least 18 years of age to be a Contract Linguist.
Is there a residency requirement that I must meet before I can apply for a Contract Linguist opportunity?
Before applying to become a Contract Linguist, you must have lived in the United States for three of the last five years, unless employed outside of the country by the federal government.
Testing and Processing
How will I be tested as a Contract Linguist applicant?
The Foreign Language Test Battery consists of three different types of exams