ERIC Identifier: ED350882
Publication Date: 1992-12-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics Washington DC.
What Is Linguistics? ERIC Digest. [Revised].
Linguistics is the study of 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.
Conversely, a linguist can know and understand the internal structure of a
language without actually speaking it.
A linguist, then, is not an individual who speaks more than one language,
more accurately called "polyglot" or "bilingual" or "multilingual." Rather, a
linguist is concerned with language as a human phenomenon. Linguists study
grammar, the social and psychological aspects of language use, and the
relationships among languages, both historical and present-day. The field of
linguistics, like any complex field, includes several major divisions.
Formal linguistics is the study of the
structures and processes of language, that is, how language works and is
organized. Formal linguists study the structures 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. There are three main schools
of thought in formal linguistics:
(1) The "traditional," or "prescriptive," approach to grammar is probably
familiar to most of us. It is what we are usually taught in school. "A noun is a
person, place, or thing" is a typical definition in a traditional grammar. Such
grammars typically prescribe rules of correct or preferred usage.
(2) "Structural linguistics," a principally American phenomenon of the
mid-20th century, is typified by the work of Leonard Bloomfield, who drew on
ideas of the behaviorist school of psychology. Structuralists are primarily
concerned with phonology, morphology, and syntax (described below). They focus
on the physical features of utterances with little regard for meaning or lexicon
(Crystal, 1980). They divide words into form classes distinguished according to
grammatical features. For example, a noun is defined in terms of its position in
a sentence and its inflections, such as the "-s" for plural.
(3) The "generative/transformational" approach to the study of grammar was
introduced by Noam Chomsky in 1957 in his seminal work, "Syntactic Structures."
Here he traced a relationship between the "deep structure" of sentences (what is
in the mind) and their "surface structure" (what is spoken or written). For
example, the surface structure of the sentence, "The postman was bitten by the
dog," was derived from the deep structure, "The dog bit the postman," through
the application of a passive transformation. From transformational/generative
grammar arose the theory of Universal Grammar. This widely accepted theory
starts from the perception that all languages share certain linguistic features
(universals). The goal of this theory is to explain the uniformity of language
acquisition among humans despite ostensible differences in their native
languages. Since Chomsky's original proposals in 1957, numerous elaborations and
alternative theories have been proposed.
Formal linguistics includes five principal areas of study:
"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.
"Phonology" involves analyzing how sounds function in a given language or
dialect. For example, /p/ has two possible sounds in English depending on its
position in a word. If you place a sheet of paper near your mouth and pronounce
the words "pin" and "spin," the paper will vibrate after the /p/ in the first
word but not after the same sound in the second word. This puff of air occurs
when /p/ is in the initial position of a word in English. Phonologists examine
such phonetic shifts to construct theories about linguistic sounds in one
language that can be used in comparing linguistic systems. The analysis of
sounds in different languages can be very useful for foreign language teachers.
"Morphology" is the study of the structure of words. Morphologists study
minimal units of meaning, called "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" 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 sentence, "The coin that I found yesterday is quite valuable."
Syntacticians describe the rules for converting the first sentence into the
"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. The importance
of meaning is revealed in the following well known example from Chomsky (1957):
"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." Though grammatical, this sentence is
largely meaningless in ordinary usage.
Sociolinguistics is the study of language
as a social and cultural phenomenon. The major divisions within the field of
sociolinguistics are described below.
"Language Variation" describes the relationship between the use of linguistic
forms and factors such as geography, social class, ethnic group, age, sex,
occupation, function, or style. The combination of these various factors results
in an individual's "idiolect," that is, their 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 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. For example, the
speech of an Alabaman is quite different from that of a New Englander, even
though the language spoken by both is English. Further differentiation is
possible by investigating factors such as social class, age, sex, and
Language and Social Interaction. This is the province of language and its
function in the real world. Three subfields of sociolinguistics investigate this
(1) Pragmatics looks at how context affects meaning. As a function of
context, the intended meaning of an utterance is often different from its
literal meaning. For example, "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
(2) Discourse analysis examines the way in which sentences relate in larger
linguistic units, such as conversational exchanges or written texts. Matters of
cohesion (the relationship between linguistic forms and propositions) and
coherence (the relationship between speech acts) are also investigated. The
links between utterances in sequence are important topics of analysis.
(3) Ethnography of communication uses the tools of anthropology to study
verbal interaction in its social setting. One example of ethnographic research
is the study of doctor-patient communication. Such study involves microanalysis
of doctor-patient interaction, noting not only what is said but also pauses
between turns, interruptions, questioning and response patterns, changes in
pitch, and nonverbal aspects of interaction, such as eye contact.
Language Attitudes. The attitudes people hold toward different language
varieties and the people who speak them are important to sociolinguists. Whereas
studies in language and social interaction investigate actual language
interaction, language attitude studies explore how people react to language
interactions and how they evaluate others based on the language behavior they
Language Planning is the process of implementing major decisions regarding
which languages should be used on a societal scale. Language attitude studies
are an essential component of language planning. In the United States, issues
such as establishing bilingual education programs or whether to declare English
the official language are major language planning decisions.
It is in multilingual nations, however, that language planning is most
significant. Governments must decide which of a country's many languages to
develop or maintain and which to use for such functions as education,
government, television, and the press. "Corpus" planning involves the
development or simplification of writing systems, dictionaries, and grammars for
indigenous languages, in addition to the coining of words to represent new
concepts. In such contexts, language planning is an important factor in
economic, political, and social development.
Psycholinguistics is the study of the
relationship between linguistic and psychological behavior. Psycholinguists
study first and second language acquisition and how humans store and retrieve
linguistic information, referred to as "verbal processing."
Language Acquisition. The study of how humans acquire language begins with
the study of child language acquisition. Principally, two hypotheses have been
put forth. The first, deriving from the structuralist school of linguistics,
holds that children learn language through imitation and positive-negative
reinforcement. This is known as the behaviorist approach. The second, or
innateness hypothesis, proposes that the ability to acquire language is a
biologically innate capacity. Furthermore, innate language learning ability is
linked to physiological maturation and may atrophy 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 post-pubescent 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.
Verbal Processing involves speaking, understanding, reading, and writing, and
therefore includes both the production of verbal output and reception of the
output of others. For example, although the sentences of a language may
theoretically be infinitely long, there are constraints placed on their length,
as well as on their structural characteristics, by our processing capabilities.
Although we readily comprehend "The dog bit the cat that chased the mouse that
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 of major interest to 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. This is the mandate of applied linguistics. Applied linguists draw
from theories of language acquisition to develop first and second language
teaching methodologies and to implement successful literacy programs; they may
draw from theories of sociolinguistics to develop special teaching strategies
for speakers of nonstandard English. Applied linguists may also engage in
language planning by developing alphabets and grammars for unwritten languages
and by writing dictionaries. They are sometimes asked to be expert witnesses in
legal cases involving language. Computer corporations employ applied linguists
to examine speech synthesis and speech recognition by automated machines. In
short, applied linguists apply the theories and tools of formal linguistics,
sociolinguistics, and psycholinguistics in a wide variety of socially useful
FOR FURTHER READING
Chomsky, N. (1957). "Syntactic
structures." The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton.
Chomsky, N. (1968). "Language and mind." New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Crystal, D. (1980). "A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics." Cambridge:
Elgin, S.H. (1979). "What is linguistics?" (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Fromkin, V., & Rodman, R. (1978). "An introduction to language" (2nd
ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
Slobin, D.I. (1971). "Psycholinguistics." Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.
Trudgill, P. (1983). "Sociolinguistics: An introduction to language and
society" (rev. ed.). Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin.