Linguistics is the scientific study of language, encompassing a number of sub-fields. An important topical division is between the study of language structure (grammar) and the study of meaning (semantics). Grammar encompasses morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the rules that determine how words combine into phrases and sentences) and phonology (the study of sound systems and abstract sound units). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds (phones), non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.
Over the twentieth century, following the work of Noam Chomsky, linguistics came to be dominated by the Generativist school, which is chiefly concerned with explaining how human beings acquire language and the biological constraints on this acquisition. Generative theory is modularist in character. While this remains the dominant paradigm, Chomsky's writings have also gathered much criticism, and other linguistic theories have increasingly gained popularity; cognitive linguistics is a prominent example. There are many sub-fields in linguistics, which may or may not be dominated by a particular theoretical approach: evolutionary linguistics attempts to account for the origins of language; historical linguistics explores language change and sociolinguistics looks at the relation between linguistic variation and social structures.
A variety of intellectual disciplines are relevant to the study of language. Although certain linguists have downplayed the relevance of some other fields, linguistics — like other sciences — is highly interdisciplinary and draws on work from such fields as psychology, informatics, computer science, philosophy, biology, human anatomy, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, and acoustics.
Names for the discipline
Before the twentieth century (the word is first attested 1716), the term "philology" was commonly used to refer to the science of language, which was then predominately historical in focus. Since Ferdinand de Saussure's insistence on the importance of synchronic analysis, however, this focus has shifted and the term "philology" is now generally used for the "study of a language's grammar, history and literary tradition", especially in the USA., where it was never as popular as elsewhere in the sense "science of language". Though the term "linguist" in the sense "a student of language" dates from 1641, the term "linguistics" dates from 1847. It is now the usual academic term in English for the scientific study of language.
Fundamental concerns and divisions
Linguistics concerns itself with describing and explaining the nature of human language. Relevant to this are the questions of what is universal to language, how language can vary, and how human beings come to know languages. All humans (setting aside extremely pathological cases) achieve competence in whatever language is spoken (or signed, in the case of signed languages) around them when growing up, with apparently little need for explicit conscious instruction. While non-humans acquire their own communication systems, they do not acquire human language in this way (although many non-human animals can learn to respond to language, or can even be trained to use it to a degree). Therefore, linguists assume, the ability to acquire and use language is an innate, biologically-based potential of modern human beings, similar to the ability to walk. There is no consensus, however, as to the extent of this innate potential, or its domain-specificity (the degree to which such innate abilities are specific to language), with some theorists claiming that there is a very large set of highly abstract and specific binary settings coded into the human brain, while others claim that the ability to learn language is a product of general human cognition. It is, however, generally agreed that there are no strong genetic differences underlying the differences between languages: an individual will acquire whatever language(s) they are exposed to as a child, regardless of parentage or ethnic origin.
Linguistic structures are pairings of meaning and form (which may consist of sound patterns, movements of the hand, written symbols, and so on); such pairings are known as Saussurean signs. Linguists may specialize in some sub-area of linguistic structure, which can be arranged in the following terms, from form to meaning:
Many linguists would agree that these divisions overlap considerably, and the independent significance of each of these areas is not universally acknowledged. Regardless of any particular linguist's position, each area has core concepts that foster significant scholarly inquiry and research.
Intersecting with these domains are fields arranged around the kind of external factors that are considered. For example:
The related discipline of semiotics investigates the relationship between signs and what they signify. From the perspective of semiotics, language can be seen as a sign or symbol, with the world as its representation.
Variation and universality
Much modern linguistic research, particularly within the paradigm of generative grammar, has concerned itself with trying to account for differences between languages of the world. This has worked on the assumption that if human linguistic ability is narrowly constrained by human biology, then all languages must share certain fundamental properties.
In generativist theory, the collection of fundamental properties all languages share are referred to as universal grammar (UG). The specific characteristics of this universal grammar are a much debated topic. Typologists and non-generativist linguists usually refer simply to language universals, or universals of language.
Similarities between languages can have a number of different origins. In the simplest case, universal properties may be due to universal aspects of human experience. For example, all humans experience water, and all human languages have a word for water. Other similarities may be due to common descent: the Latin language spoken by the Ancient Romans developed into Spanish in Spain and Italian in Italy; similarities between Spanish and Italian are thus in many cases due to both being descended from Latin. In other cases, contact between languages — particularly where many speakers are bilingual — can lead to much borrowing of structures, as well as words. Similarity may also, of course, be due to coincidence. English much and Spanish mucho are not descended from the same form or borrowed from one language to the other; nor is the similarity due to innate linguistic knowledge (see False cognate).
Arguments in favor of language universals have also come from documented cases of sign languages (such as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language) developing in communities of congenitally deaf people, independently of spoken language. The properties of these sign languages conform generally to many of the properties of spoken languages. Other known and suspected sign language isolates include Kata Kolok, Nicaraguan Sign Language, and Providence Island Sign Language.
It has been perceived that languages tend to be organized around grammatical categories such as noun and verb, nominative and accusative, or present and past, though, importantly, not exclusively so. The grammar of a language is organized around such fundamental categories, though many languages express the relationships between words and syntax in other discrete ways (cf. some Bantu languages for noun/verb relations, ergative/absolutive systems for case relations, several Native American languages for tense/aspect relations).
In addition to making substantial use of discrete categories, language has the important property that it organizes elements into recursive structures; this allows, for example, a noun phrase to contain another noun phrase (as in “the chimpanzee’s lips”) or a clause to contain a clause (as in “I think that it’s raining”). Though recursion in grammar was implicitly recognized much earlier (for example by Jespersen), the importance of this aspect of language became more popular after the 1957 publication of Noam Chomsky’s book “Syntactic Structures”, - that presented a formal grammar of a fragment of English. Prior to this, the most detailed descriptions of linguistic systems were of phonological or morphological systems.
Chomsky used a context-free grammar augmented with transformations. Since then, following the trend of Chomskyan linguistics, context-free grammars have been written for substantial fragments of various languages (for example GPSG, for English), but it has been demonstrated that human languages include cross-serial dependencies, which cannot be handled adequately by context-free grammars.
Some selected sub-fields
Studying languages at a particular point in time (usually the present) is "synchronic", while diachronic linguistics examines how language changes through time, sometimes over centuries. It enjoys both a rich history and a strong theoretical foundation for the study of language change.
In universities in the United States, the non-historic perspective is often out of fashion. The shift in focus to a non-historic perspective started with Saussure and became predominant with Noam Chomsky.
Explicitly historical perspectives include historical-comparative linguistics and etymology.
Contextual linguistics may include the study of linguistics in interaction with other academic disciplines. The interdisciplinary areas of linguistics consider how language interacts with the rest of the world.
Sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and linguistic anthropology are seen as areas that bridge the gap between linguistics and society as a whole.
Psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics relate linguistics to the medical sciences.
Other cross-disciplinary areas of linguistics include evolutionary linguistics, computational linguistics and cognitive science.
Linguists are largely concerned with finding and describing the generalities and varieties both within particular languages and among all language. Applied linguistics takes the result of those findings and “applies” them to other areas. The term “applied linguistics” is often used to refer to the use of linguistic research in language teaching only, but results of linguistic research are used in many other areas as well. "Applied linguistics" has been argued to be something of a misnomer[who?] , since applied linguists focus on making sense of and engineering solutions for real-world linguistic problems, not simply "applying" existing technical knowledge from linguistics; moreover, they commonly apply technical knowledge from multiple sources, such as sociology (e.g. conversation analysis) and anthropology.
Today, computers are widely used in many areas of applied linguistics. Speech synthesis and speech recognition use phonetic and phonemic knowledge to provide voice interfaces to computers. Applications of computational linguistics in machine translation, computer-assisted translation, and natural language processing are areas of applied linguistics which have come to the forefront. Their influence has had an effect on theories of syntax and semantics, as modeling syntactic and semantic theories on computers constraints.
Description and prescription
Linguistics is descriptive; linguists describe and explain features of language without making subjective judgments on whether a particular feature is "right" or "wrong". This is analogous to practice in other sciences: a zoologist studies the animal kingdom without making subjective judgments on whether a particular animal is better or worse than another.
Prescription, on the other hand, is an attempt to promote particular linguistic usages over others, often favouring a particular dialect or "acrolect". This may have the aim of establishing a linguistic standard, which can aid communication over large geographical areas. It may also, however, be an attempt by speakers of one language or dialect to exert influence over speakers of other languages or dialects (see Linguistic imperialism). An extreme version of prescriptivism can be found among censors, who attempt to eradicate words and structures which they consider to be destructive to society.
Speech and writing
Most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken (or signed) language is more fundamental than written language. This is because:
Linguists nonetheless agree that the study of written language can be worthwhile and valuable. For research that relies on corpus linguistics and computational linguistics, written language is often much more convenient for processing large amounts of linguistic data. Large corpora of spoken language are difficult to create and hard to find, and are typically transcribed and written. Additionally, linguists have turned to text-based discourse occurring in various formats of computer-mediated communication as a viable site for linguistic inquiry.
The study of writing systems themselves is in any case considered a branch of linguistics.
Some of the earliest linguistic activities can be recalled from Iron Age India with the analysis of Sanskrit. The Pratishakhyas (from ca. the 8th century BC) constitute as it were a proto-linguistic ad hoc collection of observations about mutations to a given corpus particular to a given Vedic school. Systematic study of these texts gives rise to the Vedanga discipline of Vyakarana, the earliest surviving account of which is the work of Panini (c. 520 – 460 BC), who, however, looks back on what are probably several generations of grammarians, whose opinions he occasionally refers to. Panini formulates close to 4,000 rules which together form a compact generative grammar of Sanskrit. Inherent in his analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme and the root. Due to its focus on brevity, his grammar has a highly unintuitive structure, reminiscent of contemporary "machine language" (as opposed to "human readable" programming languages).
Indian linguistics maintained a high level for several centuries; Patanjali in the 2nd century BC still actively criticizes Panini. In the later centuries BC, however, Panini's grammar came to be seen as prescriptive, and commentators came to be fully dependent on it. Bhartrihari (c. 450 – 510) theorized the act of speech as being made up of four stages: first, conceptualization of an idea, second, its verbalization and sequencing (articulation) and third, delivery of speech into atmospheric air, the interpretation of speech by the listener, the interpreter.
In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760, in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book he distinguished phonetics from phonology.
Western linguistics begins in Classical Antiquity with grammatical speculation such as Plato's Cratylus.
Sir William Jones noted that Sanskrit shared many common features with classical Latin and Greek, notably verb roots and grammatical structures, such as the case system. This led to the theory that all languages sprung from a common source and to the discovery of the Indo-European language family. He began the study of comparative linguistics, which would uncover more language families and branches.
Some early-19th-century linguists were Jakob Grimm, who devised a principle of consonantal shifts in pronunciation – known as Grimm's Law – in 1822; Karl Verner, who formulated Verner's Law; August Schleicher, who created the "Stammbaumtheorie" ("family tree"); and Johannes Schmidt, who developed the "Wellentheorie" ("wave model") in 1872.
Ferdinand de Saussure was the founder of modern structural linguistics. Edward Sapir, a leader in American structural linguistics, was one of the first who explored the relations between language studies and anthropology. His methodology had strong influence on all his successors. Noam Chomsky's formal model of language, transformational-generative grammar, developed under the influence of his teacher Zellig Harris, who was in turn strongly influenced by Leonard Bloomfield, has been the dominant model since the 1960s.
Noam Chomsky remains a pop-linguistic figure. Linguists (working in frameworks such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) or Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG)) are increasingly seen to stress the importance of formalization and formal rigor in linguistic description, and may distance themselves somewhat from Chomsky's more recent work (the "Minimalist" program for Transformational grammar), connecting more closely to his earlier works.
Other linguists working in Optimality Theory state generalizations in terms of violable constraints that interact with each other, and abandon the traditional rule-based formalism first pioneered by early work in generativist linguistics. Functionalist linguists working in functional grammar and Cognitive Linguistics tend to stress the non-autonomy of linguistic knowledge and the non-universality of linguistic structures, thus differing significantly from the Chomskyan school. They reject Chomskyan intuitive introspection as a scientific method, relying instead on typological evidence.
Popular works and texts
Literature and art exploring linguistic themes
Published - September 2008
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