What is linguistics?
Video credit: The Virtual Linguistics Campus, “What is Linguistics (not)?” July 31, 2014, via YouTube.
We have been discussing so many interesting linguistic topics on BLOGONLINGUISTICS blog, but what is linguistics?
Linguistics (L.) (from Lat. lingua – “language”) is scientific study of language.
The core branches of L. are associated with language structure and the units of each level of this structure at which L. is looking at: sounds, words, sentences, and texts.
1. If L. looks at sound, then we can distinguish between the following linguistic branches:
a) phonetics – deals with the production (articulatory phonetics), physical transmission (acoustic phonetics), and reception or perception (auditory phonetics) of speech sounds by people (e.g. what organs of speech participate in articulating the sound [t]?) and
b) phonology – how sounds are organized in a particular language (e.g. how many consonants and vowels does this language have?).
2. If L. looks at structure of words and sentences, we can distinguish between:
a) morphology – deals with the structure of words (e.g. the word “superuser” consists of the stem ‘superuser’, two roots: ‘super’ and ‘use’, the suffix ‘-r’, and a zero ending) and
b) syntax – how phrases and sentences are constructed (e.g. “I go to school” is a simple sentence consisting of the subject in the form of the personal pronoun ‘I’, the verb in the present simple tense ‘go’, the adverbial modifier of place ‘to school’ consisting of the preposition ‘to’ and the noun ‘school’) – see also the post on X-bar syntax.
3. If L. looks at meaning, we can distinguish between:
a) semantics – has to do with meaning of words and other communicative units (e.g. what does the word “aerodynamics” mean [lexical semantics]? or what does this idiom mean [phraseology]?);
b) pragmatics – how meaning works to produce a particular communicative effect (e.g.Bob says “Thank you for the book!” [locutionary act], his purpose is to convey gratitude [illocutioraly act], the effect is that Jo looks surprised [perlocutionary act] – see the post on Speech act theory) and
c) discourse – language in use – the focus here is the text and how it functions in a variety of contexts.
The image below summarizes the discussion above and also shows the main linguistic units studied within each branch:
These are the core areas of L., in other words, what L. is. But what is L. not? The video above touches upon this question. Is L. anything and everything that has to do with words, sounds, etc.? For instance, L.is not literary criticism although linguistics is interested in how literary works are created (e.g. what style is used). L. is not a prescriptive set of grammatical rules stating how language should be used, although L. does take interest in what rules govern language. L. is not a snapshot of language use, but a science and as any science it evolves.
L. grows as the areas of language application grow. For instance, since the time computers have been adopted by people, L. has taken interest in how people can (e.g. using chats, audio, and video calls, share-screen sessions, etc.) and do communicate (e.g. how people use language in emails, in comments to video materials, blogs, etc.) using computers or how computers can be used to facilitate human communication (e.g. online dictionaries, training exercises on a computer or a smart phone) and even how to recreate communication (e.g. computer characters that are programmed to recognize such questions as “How are you today” and to give simple replies in response) on a computer.
What are some of the fascinating new horizons that L. can and has already disembarked on? Some of the questions that may interest language instructors and students are:
How to find new and optimize the existing ways of teaching and learning languages: for example how to make language classes more interesting and, therefore, more productive for students?
How to learn a language better to be able to communicate freely with native speakers?
How to minimize the time maximize the efficiency of time spent on learning a language and the obtained results?
Another interesting question that modern L. is interested in is artificial intelligence. Language is such a unique human ability that without recreating the whole thinking process it is impossible to recreate meaningful conversations on undetermined topics (see the post on artificial intelligence).
What areas of L. interest you?
In brief, this post has defined L. and its core fields. The following post explores the structure of L. or its branches in more detail.