ERIC Identifier: ED278255
Publication Date: 1986-12-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics Washington DC.
What Is Linguistics? ERIC Digest.
Linguistics is the study of human language. Knowledge of linguistics,
however, is different from knowledge of a language. Just as a person is able to
drive a car without understanding the inner workings of the engine, so, too, can
a speaker use a language without any conscious knowledge of its internal
structure. And conversely, a linguist can know and understand the internal
structure of a language without actually speaking it.
WHAT DO LINGUISTS STUDY?
A linguist, then, is not an individual who speaks many languages, more
accurately called a "polyglot" or a "bi-" or "multilingual". Rather, linguists
are concerned with the grammar of a language, with the social and psychological
aspects of language use, and with the relationships among languages, both
historical and in the present. As in any complex field, there are several major
divisions within the field of linguistics.
Formal linguistics is the study of grammar, or the development of theories as
to how language works and is organized. Formal linguists compare grammars of
different languages, and by identifying and studying the elements common among
them, seek to discover the most efficient way to describe language in general.
The ultimate goal of this process is a "universal grammar"--the development of a
theory to explain how the human brain processes language. Within formal
linguistics, there are three main schools of thought:
--Traditional. The traditional approach to grammar is the one that is
probably most familiar to the majority of us. A typical definition in a
traditional grammar is "A noun is a person, place, or thing." "Adjective
clause," "noun clause," "complement," and "part of speech" are other familiar
terms from traditional grammars.
--Structural. Structural linguistics, a principally American phenomenon of
the 1940's, was heavily influenced by the work of B.F. Skinner. Of the areas of
linguistic study to be described below, structuralists are principally concerned
with phonology, morphology and syntax. Structuralists exclude meaning from the
study of language, focusing instead on linguistic forms and their arrangement.
"Phoneme," "morpheme," "form class" and "constituent" are terms typically used
in structural grammars.
--Generative/transformational. The generative/transformational approach to
the description of language was introduced in 1957 with the publication of Noam
Chomsky's SYNTACTIC STRUCTURES. Generative approaches include meaning in the
study of language, and look for patterned relationships between "deep"
structures of meaning and "surface" structures of linguistic forms actually used
by the speaker. Since Chomsky's original proposals in 1957, there have been
numerous elaborations and alternative theories (some discussed by Newmeyer,
1980), so that today, a number of approaches are being considered.
The following are the principal areas of study within formal linguistics:
--Phonetics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds of language and their
physical properties. Phonetics describes how speech sounds are produced by the
vocal apparatus (the lungs, vocal cords, tongue, teeth, etc.) and provides a
framework for their classification. Two practical applications of phonetics are
speech synthesis, the reproduction by mechanical means of the sounds produced in
human language; and speech recognition, the developing capacity of computers to
comprehend spoken input.
--Phonology. Phonology is concerned with the analysis and description of the
meaningful sounds uttered in the production of human language, and how those
sounds function in different languages. The letter "p," for example, can be
pronounced in several different ways: an English speaker interprets these
different pronunciations as one sound, whereas a speaker of some other language
might interpret the pronunciations as two or more sounds. It is phonological
analysis such as this that allows the foreign language teacher to pinpoint and
correct students' pronunciation difficulties in the foreign language classroom.
--Morphology. Morphology is the study of the structure of words.
Morphologists study minimal meaning units, or morphemes, and investigate the
possible combinations of these units in a language to form words. For example,
the word "imperfections" is composed of four morphemes: im+perfect+ion+s. The
root, "perfect," is transformed from an adjective into a noun by the addition of
"ion," made negative with "im" and pluralized by "s."
--Syntax. Syntax is the study of the structure of sentences. Syntacticians
describe how words combine into phrases and clauses and how these combine to
form sentences. For example, "I found a coin yesterday" is embedded as a
relative clause in "The coin which I found yesterday is quite valuable."
Syntacticians describe the rules for converting the first sentence into the
--Semantics. Semantics is the study of meaning in language. The goal of
semantic study is to explain how sequences of language are matched with their
proper meanings and placed in certain environments by speakers of the language.
A demonstration of the importance of meaning to the grammar of a language is the
following well-known example from Chomsky (1957): Colorless green ideas sleep
furiously. This is a grammatical sentence; but because semantic components have
been ignored, it is meaningless in ordinary usage.
Sociolinguistics is the study of language as a social and cultural
phenomenon. Studies of language variation, language and social interaction,
language attitudes and language planning are major divisions within the subfield
--Language Variation. Language variation is a term used to describe the
relationship between the use of linguistic forms, geography, and certain social
categories, such as social class, ethnic group, age, sex, occupation, function,
and style. The combination of these various factors in speech result in an
individual's idiolect, or particular and idiosyncratic manner of speech. When a
variety of language is shared by a group of speakers, it is known as a dialect.
A dialect, whether standard or nonstandard, includes the full range of elements
used to produce and present speech: pronunciation, grammar, and interactive
features. In this respect, dialect should be distinguished from accent, which
usually refers only to pronunciation.
All speakers of a language speak a dialect of that language. The speech of a
resident of Alabama is quite different from the speech of a New Englander, as
the Texan differs in language variety from the resident of rural Kentucky, and
so forth, even though the language spoken by all is English. Further
differentiation is possible by investigating factors such as social class, age,
sex, occupation, and others.
--Language and Social Interaction. Language and social interaction refers to
language and its function in the real world. Three subfields of sociolinguistics
investigate this relationship: pragmatics, the ethnography of communication and
Pragmatics. Pragmatics is the study of the ways in which context affects
meaning. Thus, as a function of context, the intended ning of an utterance is
very often significantly different from its literal meaning. For example, a
sentence such as "I'm expecting a phone call" can have a variety of meanings. It
could be a request to leave the phone line free; or a reason for not being able
to leave the house; or it could suggest to a listener who already has background
information that a specific person is about to call to convey good or bad news.
Discourse Analysis. Discourse analysis examines the way in which sentences
are combined in larger linguistic units, such as conversational exchanges or
written texts. Matters of coherence and cohesion of texts are also investigated,
and the links between utterances in sequence are also important topics of
Ethnography of Communication. The ethnography of communication uses the tools
of anthropology to study verbal interaction in its social setting. One practical
example of the use of ethnographic research is in the study of doctor-patient
communication. Such a study involves microanalysis of doctor-patient interaction
by noting not only what is said, but also the duration between turns,
interruptions, the style of questioning, changes in pitch, and nonverbal aspects
of interaction, such as eye contact, physical contact, and gestures.
--Language Attitude Studies. Language attitude studies investigate the
attitudes that people hold, or appear to hold, vis a vis different language
varieties and the people who speak them. While studies in language and social
interaction investigate actual language interaction, language attitude studies
explore how people react to what occurs in language interaction and how they
evaluate others based on the language behavior they observe.
--Language Planning. Language planning is the process through which major
decisions are made and implemented with regard to how and which languages should
be used on a nationwide basis. Language attitude studies are an essential
component of language planning. In the United States, such issues as declaring
English the official language, or the establishment of bilingual education
programs are major language planning decisions.
It is in the multilingual, emerging nation-states of the third world,
however, that language planning is the most significant. Governments must often
decide which of a country's several or many languages should be developed--that
is, written, standardized, or modernized; and how a country's languages will be
used (in the government, the schools, the media, and so on). Status planning
involves the initial choice of which language to be used for which function.
Corpus planning involves the development or simplification of writing systems,
dictionaries and grammars for the indigenous languages, in addition to the
coining of words to express new concepts. In such contexts, language planning is
an important part of affecting economic, political and social development.
Psycholinguistics is the study of the relationship between linguistic and
psychological behavior. Psycholinguists study first and second language
acquisition; the relationship between language and cognition, or "thought"; and
how humans store and retrieve linguistic information, or "verbal processing."
--Language Acquisition. The study of how humans acquire language begins with
the study of child language acquisition. Principally, two hypotheses of language
acquisition have been presented. The first, deriving from the structuralist
school of linguistics mentioned above, holds that children learn language
through imitation and positive-negative reinforcement. This is known as the
behaviorist approach. The second, the innateness hypothesis, proposes that the
ability to acquire a human language is an inborn, biologically innate
characteristic. Furthermore, this innate language-learning ability is linked to
physiological maturation, and begins to decay around the time of puberty. The
innateness hypothesis derives from the generative/transformational school of
Such descriptions of language acquisition are further tested in exploring how
adults acquire language. It appears that most adults learn language through
memorization and positive-negative reinforcement--a manifestation of the
behaviorist model. Whether this is a result of the decay of the innate ability
described above, or a result of other psychological and cultural factors, is a
question of great interest to the psycholinguist. Recent evidence that the
innate ability to learn language may only be suppressed after puberty could lead
to important innovations in the treatment of language disorders and in teaching
foreign languages to adults.
--Verbal Processing. Verbal processing involves four skills: speaking,
understanding, reading and writing, and implies both the production of verbal
output, and processing the output of others. For example, although the sentences
of a language may theoretically be infinitely long, our processing capabilities
place constraints both on their length and on certain of their structural
characteristics. While we readily comprehend "The dog bit the cat which chased
the mouse which ran into the hole," we have some difficulty sorting out "The
mouse the cat the dog bit chased ran into the hole." Why this is so, in terms of
cognition, perception, and physiology, is a major concern of the psycholinguist.
The findings of linguistics, like the findings of any other theoretical
study, can be applied to the solution of practical problems, as well as to
innovations in everyday areas involving language. Such activities are the
concern of applied linguistics.
Some of the many positive contributions of applied linguistics are the
development of first and second language teaching methodologies; practical
literacy work; the development of alphabets and grammars for unwritten
languages; dictionary compilation (lexicography); the use of expert witnesses in
legal cases involving language; the development of special teaching strategies
for speakers of nonstandard English; and speech synthesis and speech recognition
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Chomsky, N. SYNTACTIC STRUCTURES. The Hague: Mouton, 1957.
Chomsky, N. LANGUAGE AND MIND. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.,
Dulay, H., M. Burt, and S. Krashen. LANGUAGE TWO. New York: Oxford University
Elgin, S.H. WHAT IS LINGUISTICS? 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall,
Fromkin, V., and R. Rodman. AN INTRODUCTION TO LANGUAGE. 2nd ed. New York:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.
Newmeyer, F.J. LINGUISTIC THEORY IN AMERICA. New York: Academic Press, 1980.
Slobin, D.I. PSYCHOLINGUISTICS. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1971.
Trudgill, P. SOCIOLINGUISTICS: AN INTRODUCTION TO LANGUAGE AND SOCIETY. Rev.
ed. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1983.
Wolfram, W., and D. Christian. DIALOGUE ON DIALECTS. Washington, DC: Center
for Applied Linguistics, 1979.