By: Shoaib Shadab
Linguistics is a large field, or set of fields, involving the scientific study of language. At the interface between the sciences and humanities, linguistics is a battleground for anthropologists, philosophers, philologists, poets, theologians, psychologists, biologists, and neurologists, all of whom seek to describe language and how it works from their own perspective. The ever-receding and highly ambitious goal is a theory of how all aspects of language work.
Linguistics has many sub-fields. This includes comparative linguistics (which compares languages to each other), historical linguistics (history of language), and applied linguistics (putting linguistic theories to practical use). As a whole, linguistics concerns itself with three major problems: how we learn languages, how languages vary, and what is universal to language. Serious progress has been made on these questions during the 20th century, but there is still much more to investigate. Language is probably the most complex form of human behavior 1.
Many of the sub-fields of linguistics are arranged on a spectrum from concrete form to abstract meaning. Ranging from concrete to abstract, these include phonetics (the physical properties of speaking and listening), phonology (the study of specific sounds that make up words), morphology (the study of word structures and variations), syntax (how words are arranged into sentences), semantics (the meaning of words), pragmatics (how sentences are used to communicate messages in specific contexts), and discourse analysis (the highest level of analysis, looking at texts). Many students gain some exposure to these concepts as early as elementary school, but delving deeply into them tends to be a job for language majors or linguists.
Linguistic theories have many large holes which need to be filled, but possibly one of the most interesting is the question of the origin of language: we have little idea when it was. It could been as long as 2.2 million years ago, with early members of the genus Homo, like Homo habilis, or as recently as 200,000 years ago, when modern humans evolved in Africa. Because spoken language leaves no artifacts, analysis of early language use circumstantial evidence like tool complexity. Based on anatomical studies, many scientists suspect that Neanderthals had some rudimentary form of language, and crude reconstructions of Neanderthals pronouncing vowel noises have been synthesized in computers 2.
Accessibly written, with complicated terms and concepts explained in an easy to understandable way, Key Terms in Linguistics is an essential resource for students of linguistics.
Table of Contents
Introduction Key Terms
1. Phonetics and Phonology
Phonology is the study of sounds and speech patterns in language. The root “phone” in phonology relates to sounds and originates from the Greek word phonema which means sound. Phonology seeks to discern the sounds made in all human languages. The identification of universal and non-universal qualities of sounds is a crucial component in phonology as all languages use syllables and forms of vowels and consonants.
Syllables are involved in the timing of spoken language since speaking each word takes a portion of time. Syllables are units of measurement in language. Vowels allow air to escape from the mouth and nose unblocked, while consonants create more covering of the vocal tract by the tongue. The heard friction that is a consonant is made from the air that cannot escape as the mouth utters the consonant.
Phonemes are units of sound in a language that convey meaning. For example, changing a syllable in a word will change its meaning, such as changing the “a” in “mad” to an “o” to produce “mod”. A phoneme can also achieve no meaning by creating non-existent words such as by changing the “m” in “mad” or “mod” to a “j” to produce “jad” or “jod”. Phonemes differ from morphemes and graphemes. A morpheme refers to main grammar units, while a grapheme is the main unit of written language 3.
Phonetics is a discipline of linguistics that focuses on the study of the sounds used in speech. Phonetics is not concerned with the meaning of these sounds, the order in which they are placed, or any other factor outside of how they are produced and heard, and their various properties. Phonetics is closely related to phonology, which focuses on how sounds are understood in a given language, and semiotics, which looks at symbols themselves.
There are three major subfields of phonetics, each of which focuses on a particular aspect of the sounds used in speech and communication. Auditory phonetics looks at how people perceive the sounds they hear, acoustic phonetics looks at the waves involved in speech sounds and how they are interpreted by the human ear, and articulatory phonetics looks at how sounds are produced by the human vocal apparatus. Articulatory phonetics is where the majority of people begin their study of phonetics, and it has uses for many people outside of the field of linguistics. These include speech therapists, computer speech synthesizers, and people who are simply interested in learning how they make the sounds they do 4.
2. Grammar: Morphology and Syntax
Grammatology is the study of writing from a scientific viewpoint. It is not a judgement-based system, such as writing criticism, but instead studies the fundamental rules of how writing systems work. By understanding the components and structure of a writing system, grammatologists try to gain insight into the culture that created the system as well as how it was created and how it may evolve over time.
It may seem difficult to view writing as a subject of scientific study. More often, the art of writing is associated with creativity, individual style, and personal means of expression. Yet at the heart of any written language are set properties that govern the use of the writing system. By studying grammatology, it becomes apparent that creative writers are to some extent actually interpretive artists, using the tools of the writing system to display their ability. Rather than inventing written language, writers are creating variations and new rules for an established system 5.
Morphology is a field of linguistics focused on the study of the forms and formation of words in a language. A morpheme is the smallest indivisible unit of a language that retains meaning. The rules of morphology within a language tend to be relatively regular, so that if one sees the noun morphemes for the first time, for example, one can deduce that it is likely related to the word morpheme.
There are three main types of languages when it comes to morphology: two of these are polysynthetic, meaning that words are made up of connected morphemes. One type of polysynthetic language is a fusional or inflected language, in which morphemes are squeezed together and often changed dramatically in the process. English is a good example of a fusional language. The other type of polysynthetic language is an agglutinative language, in which morphemes are connected but remain more or less unchanged – many Native American languages, as well as Swahili, Japanese, German and Hungarian, demonstrate this. At the other end of the spectrum are the analytic or isolating languages, in which a great majority of morphemes remain independent words – Mandarin is the best example of this. Morphology studies all of these different types of languages and how they relate to one another as well 6.
Syntax is not prescriptivist – which is to say, it does not attempt to tell people what the objectively correct way to form a sentence is. Rather, it is descriptivist, in that it looks at how language is actually used and tries to come up with rules that successfully describe what various language communities consider to be grammatical or non-grammatical. Syntax deals with a number of things, all of which help to facilitate being understood and understanding language. Without rules of syntax, there would be no foundation from which to try to discern meaning from a bunch of words strung together, whereas with syntax, an infinite number of sentences are possible using a fairly small finite number of rules 7.
3. Semantics and Pragmatics
Semantics is the study of meaning in language. In particular, it is the study of how meaning is structured in sentences, phrases, and words. The English term “semantics” comes from the Greek semantikos which means to show or give signs. Semantics can be applied to different kinds of symbol systems, such as computer languages and similar coding systems. In general, however, semantics generally refers to how meaning is conveyed through the symbols of a written language. Semantics can be understood when it is contrasted with another linguistic term, syntax. Syntax is the study of rules regarding how symbols are arranged. Syntax is the study of the structure of a language while semantics is the study of the meaning of a language.
When studying semantics, it is important to recognize the generally accepted meaning of a word or term rather than the literal meaning. Take the term “water pill” for example. The term “water pill” is an accepted term for a kind of diuretic. These pills are often taken by people who, for one reason or another, are retaining too much water in their bodies. If we were to look at the literal meaning of the word “water pill,” the term would seem to indicate a pill filled with water. Of course, it is quite the opposite; when the pill is ingested it causes a person to lose water 8.
Pragmatics is a subfield of linguistics which studies the meaning of language in its physical, epistemic, linguistic, and social contexts. A person can make a direct speech act, in which what is said is exactly what is meant, or an indirect speech act, where the meaning differs from the actual words spoken. These differences are typically automatically understood because of the context.
The four aspects of context can all affect pragmatics. Physical context refers to the setting of a conversation, such as a library, football field, or bedroom. Epistemic context refers to the background knowledge shared by a speaker and his or her audience, such as who is president or the basic rules of basketball. The information that has already been shared in the discussion is known as linguistic context, including all antecedents, topics of conversation, and intonations. A sarcastic, sad, or joking tone of voice can easily change the meaning of a sentence.
Social context is the term for the relationship between a speaker and an audience. A man will communicate differently when he is with his boss than with his friends. Neighbors sharing their summer vacation pictures, a teacher showing a documentary to his or her students, and teenagers watching a movie at a theater are all examples of different social contexts. Each situation would call for different styles of communication 9.
Dialectology is a study of language that focuses on understanding dialects. It is part of a larger group of studies called sociolinguistics, which evaluates the many elements that shape communication in whole cultures or in smaller groups. When dialectologists study language they are principally concerned with identifying how the same language can vary, based on a number of circumstances. This does not simply mean pronunciation changes, but can also mean differences in word choice, spelling and other factors.
It can be a little difficult to determine what constitutes a dialect. Dialectology may define this as meeting several flexible standards. These include that the dialect can be well understood by speakers of the language who don’t use it, and that those using the dialect can understand the common language used by others. A good example of this might be someone who speaks in an American dialect but can understand a British television show; this is called mutual intelligibility.
Those interested in dialectology also take into account how speakers of the dialect would perceive their own language, and if they view it as part of a larger language or as separate from it. Additionally, dialect or language may sometimes be defined politically, even if it bears similarity to another language. Leaders of countries, for instance, could declare that two languages are separate, for a variety of reasons 10.
Psycholinguistics is the study of how humans acquire, interpret, and use language. The study includes both the psychological factors and the neurobiological factors involved. As a field, it has grown out of interdisciplinary work in fields such as cognitive psychology, neuroscience, applied linguistics, and information theory.
Linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky was a pioneer in psycholinguistics, arguing that all normal humans have an innate language ability and that all human languages have a common underlying structure known as universal grammar. This directly challenges behavioral learning theories, which argue that language is not innate but learned step by step through imitation and reinforcement. This is an ongoing debate.
Language acquisition is an important subtopic in psycholinguistics, and has been most commonly studied in young children who are learning their native language. Second language acquisition is also a topic of study in this field, investigating questions such as why learning a second language is easier for children than for most adults. It also questions why non-native speakers can have trouble distinguishing between and pronouncing certain sounds necessary for meaningful speech in their second language when these sounds are not present or distinct in their native language 11.
Orthography is a humanities discipline concerned with the study of writing systems. Most languages on Earth have at least one orthography, a writing system widely used to represent the language, and some languages are written with more than one writing system, creating several orthographies for people to choose from when communicating in these languages. In addition to studying modern languages, orthographers also look at historic languages and writing systems.
The word “orthography” comes from Greek roots meaning “correct writing.” Many people specifically identify orthography as the study of spelling, although this is a bit inaccurate. Orthographers do study spelling and are especially interested in the commonly accepted spellings used in a language’s writing system, but they also study much more than spelling. Spelling is only one aspect of orthography, and it was not very standardized for much of history; even now, there are a number of variations on words which many people think are spelled in only one way.
One aspect of orthography is punctuation, the examination of markings used on the page to add more depth to the text. Punctuation provides information about how a text should be read and interpreted, and can also provide critical insight into meaning. Orthographers are also interested in topics like capitalization and other norms of writing, including natural variations seen in various communities of language speakers.
The study of orthography can be applied in a number of ways. Orthographers can be a valuable part of the teams which put together dictionary entries, researching words to learn more about variant spellings, including historic spellings which are not widely accepted anymore. They also work on books about the history of language and word use, and on guides to language use, including style guides which provide people with information about punctuation, spelling, and other norms of the language.
Orthography is also used in the study of ancient languages. Orthographers are involved in the task of puzzling out ancient scripts, identifying variations in ancient languages, and attempting to trace the history of writing and the ways in which writing systems are adopted and adapted. Another topic of interest is writing systems which are used in several languages, such as the Roman alphabet, and the ways in which these writing systems are adapted and changed to meet the needs of entirely different languages. Things like accent marks and additional letters, for example, may be added for the convenience of speakers of a different language 12.
7. Discourse and Text Analysis
Discourse analysis is a method of studying and analyzing a text, be it in written or spoken form. This method does not really analyze a text when it comes to its structure and syntax, but the meaning behind these sentences; hence, the approach is often described as going “beyond the sentence.” Not only is discourse analysis a useful method in the field of linguistics, but is also applied in other areas such as social studies, psychology, and anthropology.
As the word “discourse” suggests, the method of discourse analysis focuses on any text that can provoke any kind of discourse, a response of any sort. In this way, it broadens the range of topics and subjects an analyst can use, such as in medical journals, newspaper articles, and even a president’s speech or a casual conversation. Take, for example, the medical journal: as the writer conveys his message through the book, the reader, in turn, responds by either understanding the words or ignoring it. In this way, discourse analysis looks further than the text by discovering what response, or discourse, the written word can incite and why 13.