Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What the hell is linguistics, anyway?

Hello, my name's Tyler and I've been looking for a hobby lately so, instead of crocheting or smoking crack, I figured I'd give some interested people out there short introductions to all sorts of different language-related topics in a writing style that's easy to understand. If you have a question you've wanted answered about languages or linguistics but don't want bullshit academic language, leave a comment and I'll use it as the basis for a future post.

First off, let's look at the wiki definition of linguistics:

"Linguistics is the scientific study of natural language."

For our purposes right now, that's a pretty damn good definition. Unlike some fields, linguistics is an overarching area of study that encompasses a vast array of topics but, in many cases, linguistics serves as an aide to a separate, more specified field; because of the versatility,  linguistics can be a tricky thing to pin down. There is an old commercial by 3M that says, "We don't make the products you buy, we make the products you buy better." I think that's a nifty way of describing what linguistics can do, as well. Linguists can do anything from help develop good translation machines to get someone out of jail to make a killer ad campaign.

At it's very core, linguistics studies Language. We as linguists don't study language like schoolchildren do; we don't give a shit about spelling rules, the 'right' or 'wrong' way to say any given thing, or all of those seemingly random rules English class bequeathed you. Instead, we are interested in how people really use Language (the human capacity to speak any given language), look for its source, study the differences between and underlying unity of the world languages et cetera. Our study is a thorough one, tackling the subject in all its aspects. We study things like:

  • Phonetics, the study of the physical properties of speech production and perception
  • Phonology, the study of sounds 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 and fixed word combinations, 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

PS: Those definitions above from Wikipedia are terrifyingly academic and vague, but no worries;  I'll explain each of them in a clearer manner in the coming weeks.

There are tons of other areas of linguistics that supplement other non-linguistics fields (like criminal justice or history), and I'll get to them in later posts. Right now, though, it is important to distinguish linguistics as a discipline from other studies such as language learning (second language acquisition) or the non-empirical study of a specific language (literature or English programs in college and high school). When someone is studying another language like French, Spanish, Russian, or Xhosa that doesn't mean they are a linguist, and the same goes for someone who studies literature as an art form. Many linguists do these sorts of things on their own, but that isn't what makes them linguists.

In the next post, I'll address the issue of whether or not linguistics is a science and talk a little bit about the approach we take when looking at language use.

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