Linguistics For Dummies
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Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguists gather information about sounds and sound patterns, about words and word patterns. They look at how words form sentences and how language is used to communicate.

Linguists who focus on the form of language look at phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax. Linguists also look at how form changes over time (historical linguistics), compare the languages of the world to each other (language typology), and also compare writing systems (orthography).

Many linguists look at how language connects to meaning (semantics and pragmatics), cognition (language acquisition, psycholinguistics, and neurolinguistics), and society (anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics).

Big names in linguistics

If you’re into linguistics, it’s important to be familiar with the founding linguists. Here are some of the big thinkers — and some of their important ideas — from ancient times to today:

  • Pāṇini (around the 5th century BCE): Not to be confused with the Italian word panini ‘sandwich’ — this guy is famous for developing the first comprehensive and scientific theory of grammar. His Sanskrit grammar is the first known attempt to provide a complete description of a language — he logged almost 4,000 rules!

    But more important than the individual rules was his analysis of how Sanskrit words are formed — Western linguists didn’t catch up with his work until the middle of the 20th century, when Noam Chomsky (check Noam out below) appeared on the scene.

  • Aristotle (3rd century BCE): You may associate Aristotle more with philosophy, but he was also a great linguist! He lived in Greece and thought a lot about how words relate to their meanings. Aristotle developed a system of categories that continues to influence the way linguists approach the question of how language carries meaning.

  • Ferdinand de Saussure (1857–1913): Credited with establishing modern linguistics, Saussure was one of the founders of structuralism. At a very young age, he applied principles of structural analysis to solve a problem concerning the reconstruction of the Indo-European language family.

    Saussure’s great insight was that the relation between sound and meaning is arbitrary and that all languages are structured in a fundamentally similar fashion. His work had a huge impact on linguists in Europe and North America. Well-known European structuralists included Nikolay Trubetzkoy, Roman Jakobson, Louis Hjelmslev, and André Martinet. Well-known American structuralists included Leonard Bloomfield, Eugene Nida, Bernard Bloch, Charles Hockett, Zellig Harris, Kenneth Pike, and George Trager.

  • Noam Chomsky (1928–…): Although well-known for his political views, Chomsky’s thinking on language has influenced not only linguistics, but also computer science, mathematics, and psychology.

    One of the most cited living scholars, Chomsky’s best known for the idea that knowledge of language — in particular the productive and creative aspects of language — can be modeled by a formal generative grammar that uses a finite rule system to generate an infinite set of sentences. He also proposed that some aspects of linguistic knowledge are innate — this is called universal grammar.

Using linguistics to make up languages

There are about 6,000 human languages currently spoken. You would think that would be enough, but some brave souls feel the need to make up new languages from scratch. These constructed languages are sometimes called conlang and are especially popular in fantasy and science fiction writing and moviemaking.

How does linguistics fit into this? Well, language inventors need to know the principles of linguistic analysis to build such languages. Here are some of the more famous ones:

  • Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s by Ludwig Zamenhof to foster harmony between people of different countries. It’s the most widely spoken constructed language in the world and is used in more than 100 countries. Esperanto is based on western Indo-European languages — the sound system is mostly Slavic, the vocabulary is mostly Romance and Germanic. It’s been used as a background language in the movies Gattaca and Red Dwarf, it features in a conversation in Blade: Trinity, and is even used as the main language in the horror movie Incubus.

  • Klingon is the language of the Klingons, used in the Star Trek movie series. The Klingon language was developed by Marc Okrand, a linguist who previously worked with Native American languages. Klingon has a complete grammar and vocabulary — books have been translated into Klingon, and you can select Klingon as your language of choice in Google.

  • Nadsat is a fictional language variety used by teenagers in the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. It’s a form of Russian-influenced English — the name of the language comes from the Russian suffix –nadstat’ which is the equivalent of English ‘teen’. For example, Nadsat viddy ‘to see’ comes from the Russian vidyet ‘to see’ and Nadsat zoobies ‘teeth’ comes from the Russian zubi ‘teeth’.

  • Newspeak is a form of English used in the novel 1984 by George Orwell. It’s a deliberately simplified language that has no negative words (good is a Newspeak word but not bad), reduces everything to a simple dichotomy between goodthink and ungoodthink, and has a deliberately small vocabulary and short syllables with a staccato rhythm.

    Examples of Newspeak words are ungood for ‘bad’, plusgood for ‘great’, doubleplusgood for ‘excellent’, doublethink for ‘accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs’, and Ingsoc for ‘English socialism’. (Some aspects of Newspeak are modeled on Esperanto.)

What do linguists do?

Many linguists are academics — studying languages for their own sake — but a lot of others work for government organizations, including the military, or for nonprofits documenting and revitalizing languages. Still others work for corporations that use linguistics to solve technical problems.

Linguists explore all areas of human language. Some of the major branches of linguistics include:

  • Anthropological linguistics: Looks at how language and culture are connected.

  • Language acquisition: The process by which kids learn a first language or older folks learn a second language. Learning two languages at the same time from childhood is called bilingual language acquisition.

  • Historical linguistics: The study of the origins and evolution of language, especially the study of how languages change over time.

  • Language revitalization: The process of bringing languages that are no longer widely spoken back to life. Linguists don’t revitalize languages on their own, but they work closely with communities who seek to revitalize their languages.

  • Language typology: The study of the systematic patterns that are found in the languages of the world.

  • Morphology: The study of how meaningful parts of words combine with each other.

  • Neurolinguistics: The study of how language is related to brain function.

  • Phonetics: The study of what sounds the speakers of a language use and how they make them.

  • Phonology: The study of how the sounds of a language systematically combine to form patterns.

  • Pragmatics: The study of how language is used in interactive contexts such as conversation, email, and teaching.

  • Semantics: The study of how meaning is expressed through language.

  • Sociolinguistics: The study of how the form of language varies across different social contexts.

  • Speech perception: The process of perceiving speech sounds.

  • Speech production: You got it — the process of producing speech sounds.

  • Syntax: The study of how words and phrases combine to form sentences.

Some tough questions associated with linguistics

The problems posed by linguistics can make you notice really cool things about language. You’ve probably asked yourself these questions without even realizing that they’re linguistic questions.

  • Why is learning a second language so difficult?

  • Why do French and English have so many words in common?

  • Why do dialects exist?

  • Why can’t all the sentences of a language be listed?

  • Why doesn’t everyone speak the same language?

  • Why is it possible to translate from one language to another?

  • Why do some conversations get off-track?

  • Why is it harder to understand someone when you talk on the phone?

  • Why isn’t sign language just a matter of making pictures with your hands?

  • Why are some speech sounds more difficult to produce and perceive than others?

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

Strang Burton is a linguist with the Stolo nation and has taught linguistics at a number of universities. Rose-Marie Déchaine and Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson are professors of linguistics at the University of British Columbia.

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