Linguistics is the scientific study of natural language. Linguistics encompasses a number of sub-fields. An important topical division is between the study of language structure (grammar) and the study of meaning (semantics and pragmatics). 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. Other sub-disciplines of linguistics include the following: evolutionary linguistics, which considers the origins of language; historical linguistics, which explores language change; sociolinguistics, which looks at the relation between linguistic variation and social structures; psycholinguistics, which explores the representation and functioning of language in the mind; neurolinguistics, which looks at the representation of language in the brain; language acquisition, which considers how children acquire their first language and how children and adults acquire and learn their second and subsequent languages; and discourse analysis, which is concerned with the structure of texts and conversations, and pragmatics with how meaning is transmitted based on a combination of linguistic competence, non-linguistic knowledge, and the context of the speech act.
Linguistics is narrowly defined as the scientific approach to the study of language, but language can, of course, be approached from a variety of directions, and a number of other intellectual disciplines are relevant to it and influence its study. Semiotics, for example, is a related field concerned with the general study of signs and symbols both in language and outside of it. Literary theorists study the use of language in artistic literature. Linguistics additionally draws on work from such diverse fields as psychology, speech-language pathology, informatics, computer science, philosophy, biology, human anatomy, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, and acoustics.
Within the field, linguist is used to describe someone who either studies the field or uses linguistic methodologies to study groups of languages or particular languages. Outside the field, this term is commonly used to refer to people who speak many languages or have a great vocabulary.
Names for the discipline
Before the twentieth century, the term "philology", first attested in 1716, was commonly used to refer to the science of language, which was then predominantly 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 United States, where it was never as popular as it was elsewhere (in the sense of the "science of language").
Although the term "linguist" in the sense of "a student of language" dates from 1641, the term "linguistics" is first attested in 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 that 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) he or she is exposed to as a child, regardless of parentage or ethnic origin.
Linguistic structures are pairings of meaning and form; such pairings are known as Saussurean signs. In this sense, form may consist of sound patterns, movements of the hands, written symbols, and so on. There are many sub-fields concerned with particular aspects of linguistic structure, ranging from those focused primarily on form to those focused primarily on meaning:
- Phonetics, the study of the physical properties of speech (or signed) production and perception
- Phonology, the study of sounds (or signs) as discrete, abstract elements in the speaker's mind that distinguish meaning
- Morphology, the study of internal structures of words and how they can be modified
- Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences
- Semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics) and fixed word combinations (phraseology), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences
- Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used in communicative acts, and the role played by context and non-linguistic knowledge in the transmission of meaning
- Discourse analysis, the analysis of language use in texts (spoken, written, or signed)
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.
Alongside these structurally-motivated domains of study are other fields of linguistics, distinguished by the kinds of non-linguistic factors that they consider:
- Applied linguistics, the study of language-related issues applied in everyday life, notably language policies, planning, and education. (Constructed language fits under Applied linguistics.)
- Biolinguistics, the study of natural as well as human-taught communication systems in animals, compared to human language.
- Clinical linguistics, the application of linguistic theory to the field of Speech-Language Pathology.
- Computational linguistics, the study of computational implementations of linguistic structures.
- Developmental linguistics, the study of the development of linguistic ability in individuals, particularly the acquisition of language in childhood.
- Evolutionary linguistics, the study of the origin and subsequent development of language by the human species.
- Historical linguistics or diachronic linguistics, the study of language change over time.
- Language geography, the study of the geographical distribution of languages and linguistic features.
- Linguistic typology, the study of the common properties of diverse unrelated languages, properties that may, given sufficient attestation, be assumed to be innate to human language capacity.
- Neurolinguistics, the study of the structures in the human brain that underlie grammar and communication.
- Psycholinguistics, the study of the cognitive processes and representations underlying language use.
- Sociolinguistics, the study of variation in language and its relationship with social factors.
- Stylistics, the study of linguistic factors that place a discourse in context.
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, which 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). It has been demonstrated, however, that human languages (most notably Dutch and Swiss German) include cross-serial dependencies, which cannot be handled adequately by context-free grammars.
Historical linguistics studies the history and evolution of languages through the comparative method. Often the aim of historical linguistics is to classify languages in language families descending from a common ancestor. This evolves comparison of elements in different languages to detect possible cognates in order to be able to reconstruct how different languages have changed over time. This also involves the study of etymology, the study of the history of single words. Historical linguistics is also called "diachronic linguistics" and is opposed to "synchronic linguistics" that study languages in a given moment in time without regarding its previous stages.In universities in the United States, the historic perspective is often out of fashion. Historical linguistics was among the first linguistic disciplines to emerge and was the most widely practiced form of linguistics in the late 19th century. The shift in focus to a synchronic perspective started with Saussure and became predominant in western linguistics with Noam Chomsky's emphasis on the study of the synchronic and universal aspects of language.
Semiotics is the study of sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems, including the study of how meaning is constructed and understood. Semioticians often do not restrict themselves to linguistic communication when studying the use of signs but extend the meaning of "sign" to cover all kinds of cultural symbols. Nonetheless semiotic disciplines closely related to linguistics are literary studies, discourse analysis, text linguistics, and philosophy of language.
Descriptive linguistics and language documentation
Since the inception of the discipline of linguistics linguists have been concerned with describing and documenting languages previously unknown to science. Starting with Franz Boas in the early 1900s descriptive linguistics became the main strand within American linguistics until the rise of formal structural linguistics in the mid 20th century. The rise of American descriptive linguistics was caused by the concern with describing the languages of indigenous peoples that were (and are) rapidly moving towards extinction. The ethnographic focus of the original Boasian type of descriptive linguistics occasioned the development of disciplines such as Sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and linguistic anthropology, disciplines that investigate the relations between language, culture and society.
The emphasis on linguistic description and documentation has since become more important outside of North America as well, as the documentation of rapidly dying indigenous languages has become a primary focus in many of the worlds' linguistics programs. Language description is a work intensive endeavour usually requiring years of field work for the linguist to learn a language sufficiently well to write a reference grammar of it. The further task of language documentation requires the linguist to collect a preferably large corpus of texts and recordings of sound and video in the language, and to arrange for its storage in accessible formats in open repositories where it may be of the best use for further research by other researchers.
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, such as lexicography and translation. "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.
Linguistic analysis is a subdiscipline of applied linguistics used by many governments to verify the claimed nationality of people seeking asylum who do not hold the necessary documentation to prove their claim. This often takes the form of an interview by personnel in an immigration department. Depending on the country, this interview is conducted in either the asylum seeker's native language through an interpreter, or in an international lingua franca like English. Australia uses the former method, while Germany employs the latter; the Netherlands uses either method depending on the languages involved. Tape recordings of the interview then undergo language analysis, which can be done by either private contractors or within a department of the government. In this analysis, linguistic features of the asylum seeker are used by analysts to make a determination about the speaker's nationality. The reported findings of the linguistic analysis can play a critical role in the government's decision on the refugee status of the asylum seeker.
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:
- Speech appears to be universal to all human beings capable of producing and hearing it, while there have been many cultures and speech communities that lack written communication;
- Speech evolved before human beings invented writing;
- People learn to speak and process spoken languages more easily and much earlier than writing;
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 Pānini (c. 520 – 460 BC), who, however, looks back on what are probably several generations of grammarians, whose opinions he occasionally refers to. Pānini 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.
Western linguistics begins in Classical Antiquity with grammatical speculation such as Plato's Cratylus. The first important advancement of the Greeks was the creation of the alphabet. As a result of the introduction of writing, poetry such as the Homeric poems became written and several editions were created and commented, forming the basis of philology and critic. The sophists and Socrates introduced dialectics as a new text genre. Aristotle defined the logic of speech and the argument. Furthermore Aristotle works on rhetoric and poetics were of utmost importance for the understating of tragedy, poetry, public discussions etc. as text genres.
One of the greatest of the Greek grammarians was Apollonius Dyscolus. Apollonius wrote more than thirty treatises on questions of syntax, semantics, morphology, prosody, orthography, dialectology, and more. In the 4th c., Aelius Donatus compiled the Latin grammar Ars Grammatica that was to be the defining school text through the Middle Ages. In De vulgari eloquentia ("On the Eloquence of Vernacular"), Dante Alighieri expanded the scope of linguistic enquiry from the traditional languages of antiquity to include the language of the day.
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.
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.
In 19th century Europe the study of linguistics was largely from the perspective of philology (or historical linguistics). 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, with an emphasis on synchronic (i.e. non-historical) explanations for language form.
In North America, the structuralist tradition grew out of a combination of missionary linguistics (whose goal was to translate the bible) and Anthropology. While originally regarded as a sub-field of anthropology in the United States, linguistics is now considered a separate scientific discipline in the US, Australia and much of Europe.
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.
The structural linguistics period was largely superseded in North America by generative grammar in the 1950s and 60s. This paradigm views language as a mental object, and emphasizes the role of the formal modeling of universal and language specific rules. Noam Chomsky remains an important but controversial linguistic figure. Generative grammar gave rise to such frameworks such as Transformational grammar, Generative Semantics, Relational Grammar, Generalized Phrase-structure Grammar, Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) and Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG). 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 formal approaches.
Schools of study
There are a wide variety of approaches to linguistic study. These can be loosely divided (although not without controversy) into formalist and functionalist approaches. Formalist approaches stress the importance of linguistic forms, and seek explanations for the structure of language from within the linguistic system itself. For example, the fact that language shows recursion might be attributed to recursive rules. Functionalist linguists by contrast view the structure of language as being driven by its function. For example, the fact that languages often put topical information first in the sentence, may be due to a communicative need to pair old information with new information in discourse.
During the last half of the twentieth century, following the work of Noam Chomsky, linguistics was dominated by the generativist school. While formulated by Chomsky in part as a way to explain how human beings acquire language and the biological constraints on this acquisition, in practice it has largely been concerned with giving formal accounts of specific phenomena in natural languages. Generative theory is modularist and formalist in character. Formal linguistics remains the dominant paradigm for studying linguistics, though Chomsky's writings have also gathered much criticism.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a new school of thought known as cognitive linguistics emerged as a reaction to generativist theory. Led by theorists such as Ronald Langacker and George Lakoff, linguists working within the realm of cognitive linguistics posit that language is an emergent property of basic, general-purpose cognitive processes, though cognitive linguistics has also been the subject of much criticism. In contrast to the generativist school of linguistics, cognitive linguistics is non-modularist and functionalist in character. Important developments in cognitive linguistics include cognitive grammar, frame semantics, and conceptual metaphor, all of which are based on the idea that form-function correspondences based on representations derived from embodied experience constitute the basic units of language.