What is linguistics?

What is linguistics?
What does a linguist study?
And what can you do with a linguistics degree?

One of the first things humans do when we are born is make noise, and, after just a short period of time, our cries and gurgles turn into meaningful utterances that other people can understand. Indeed, it is often said that it is our capacity for language which makes the human species distinct from other animals. Linguistics is the systematic study of language. But what does this mean? What does it mean to study language systematically? This post is part of a series which discusses three main questions: What is linguistics? What does a linguist study? And what can you do with a linguistics degree? [For more discussion, see our other posts with the tag ‘What is linguistics?’]

So, what is linguistics? What does a linguist study? It is difficult to give short answers to these questions, because there are so many different things you would learn while studying linguistics. But, we’ll start to unpick them in this post by thinking about what language is. More specifically, we’ll think about how we can break down the study of ‘language’ into its smaller sub-parts (for example, we might be interested in pronunciation, or grammar, or word meaning).

So what are the ‘parts’ of language? What do native speakers of a language ‘know’ about it? One thing we had to do when we acquired our first language as a baby was to learn about its sounds. We had to learn, for example, how to move our tongue to make certain sounds, and we had to learn how to recognise those sounds when they were being spoken by other people. Nobody explicitly taught us how to do this when were babies, we just worked it out. The study of how we produce and perceive speech sounds takes place in an area of linguistics called phonetics. Of course, as native speakers of our language, we know much more than this. We know, for example, about how those sounds work together in the system of our language. In English, we know that the [h] sound, such as at the beginning of the word ‘house’, never appears at the end of words. We also know that the sound at the end of ‘sing’, which is spelled with the letters ‘ng’, never appears at the beginning of words. These “rules” are different in different languages. In Maori, the sound spelled ‘ng’ does occur at the beginning of words. Again, as children, we are not taught about the system of our language, we just work it out. It is in the part of linguistics called phonology where we study the sound systems of languages.

Another thing we learn about when we acquire our first language is the words. Words seem like simple things, but they are surprisingly complex. We must learn to combine them into larger structures and also to break them down into smaller meaningful units. For example, if learning English we learn that the order of words is important – ‘The dog bit John’ is very different from ‘John bit the dog’ even though the same words are used each time. But in other languages the order of words matters much less – speakers can put the words in many different places in a sentence while still saying the same thing. The combination of words to form larger structures like sentences is studied in the area of linguistics called syntax. We also know how to deconstruct words into smaller meaningful parts. For example, is ‘un’ a word of English? We can probably agree that it isn’t. Is it meaningful, though? Think about what the following words have in common: ‘untidy’, ‘unkind’ and ‘unloved’. They are all negatives – of ‘tidy’, ‘kind’ and ‘loved’. It is the ‘un’ part of each word which changes the meaning, showing us that ‘un’ is meaningful. We call ‘un’ a morpheme, and the study of word structure is called morphology.

Of course we also know about the meanings of words, and we mostly agree on what words mean in our language (if we did not we wouldn’t be able to have a conversation). Speakers of English know that the word for a four legged pet which barks is ‘dog’, while people in France know that it’s ‘chien’ and people in Spain know it’s ‘perro’. But it’s obviously not as simple as that, as we have a range of ways of referring to things. When referring to our pet dog, we might call him ‘Fido’, or ‘boy’ or, if he’s been naughty, ‘nuisance’, each time referring to the same dog. This is very common indeed, and poses us no communicative problems once we learn our language. But we first have to learn from scratch that there are many ways of saying the same thing. (And, in this case, we also have to learn that ‘boy’ can sometimes be used for ‘dog’ and sometimes for a young male human!). Like all the other levels of language, this sort of relationship between word meanings isn’t explicitly taught to us, we just work it out. The study of word meaning is the study of semantics.

We also know that our meanings depend not only on the words we use but on the context of their use. For example, think about the following two sentences: ‘Mary went into the house’ and ‘Mary came into the house’. In each one, ‘Mary’ is doing the same thing. What is different is the orientation of the speaker (in the first, the speaker is outside the house, and in the second, the speaker is inside the house). This shows how meaning is managed by speakers. The study of meaning in use is called pragmatics.

It should be clear that language is a complex entity, made up of a number of different sub-parts. When we say ‘linguistics is the scientific study of language’, we might be referring to one or more of these parts. In this post I have mentioned only some of them:

  • Phonetics: the study of the articulation and perception of speech sounds
  • Phonology: the study of sound systems
  • Morphology: the study of the structure of words
  • Syntax: the study of the structure of sentences
  • Semantics: the study of word meaning
  • Pragmatics: the study of meaning in use

There are many others, which we’ll deal with in more detail in another post. Some examples are:

  • Sociolinguistics is the study of the interaction between language and society and culture. Questions asked include: What does our language say about us? What judgements do people make about us based solely on our speech? Why do people think there is a ‘most correct’ form of English? How does “men’s language” differ from “women’s language”? Does it even make sense to ask that question?
  • Historical linguistics is the study of language change. One idea is that all languages of the world evolved from a single ‘proto language’, and that they can be traced back in time to this single origin. Of course the languages of the world are different now. What changes have taken place? How do we compare languages to be able to judge, scientifically, how similar or different they are?
  • Psycholinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and human cognition. We might study the relationship between language and memory, how language is perceived by a listener, and how language is affected in people with certain disorders. A well known area of psycholinguistics is child language acquisition, in which we study how children acquire their native language (addressing many of the issues raised in the full post above)
  • Computational linguistics or mathematical linguistics is the branch of linguistics which looks at languages essentially as formal systems, and applies computational techniques and concepts to understanding issues such as automatic machine translation from one language to another. The goal of research in these areas is to uncover the logical and mathematical structures that underlie linguistic systems.
  • Applied linguistics is the application of linguistic methods and findings to a number of other areas, especially language teaching and second-language acquisition, but also involves language and the law, language and classroom education, language and reading, speech therapy, and translation.

From all of this discussion, it should be clear that linguistics is a very broad discipline, which always has language as its central focus but which integrates very well with and borrows concepts from a wide range of other disciplines across the arts and sciences. If, for example, you are interested in anthropology, sociology, geography, psychology, computer science, biology, or some other disciplines, it’s very likely that you’ll find linguistics interesting. We’ll examine these connections in more detail in another post soon.

Our next question is: what’s the point of linguistics? How does an understanding of linguistics help you? And what roles are there in employment for people with linguistics training? Watch this space!

For information about linguistics courses at the University of Canterbury, see http://www.lacl.canterbury.ac.nz/ling/courses/ling_courses.shtml


About uclinguistics

Welcome to the blog of the Linguistics programme at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand.
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