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Encyclopedia > Linguistic
Theoretical linguistics
Lexical semantics
Applied linguistics
Generative linguistics
Cognitive linguistics
Computational linguistics
Historical linguistics
List of linguists

Broadly conceived, linguistics is the study of human language, and a linguist is someone who engages in this study. The study of linguistics can be thought of along three major axes, the endpoints of which are described below:

  • Synchronic and diachronic - Synchronic study of a language is concerned with its form at a given moment; diachronic study covers the history of a language (group) and its structural changes over time.
  • Theoretical and applied - Theoretical (or general) linguistics is concerned with frameworks for describing individual languages and theories about universal aspects of language; applied linguistics applies these theories to other fields.
  • Contextual and independent - Contextual linguistics is concerned with how language fits into the world: its social function, how it is acquired, how it is produced and perceived. Independent linguistics considers languages for their own sake, aside from the externalities related to a language. Terms for this dichotomy are not yet well established--the Encyclopædia Britannica uses macrolinguistics and microlinguistics instead.

Given these dichotomies, scholars who call themselves simply linguists or theoretical linguists, with no further qualification, tend to be concerned with independent, theoretical synchronic linguistics, which is acknowledged as the core of the discipline.

Linguistic inquiry is pursued by a wide variety of specialists, who may not all be in harmonious agreement; as Russ Rymer flamboyantly puts it:

"Linguistics is arguably the most hotly contested property in the academic realm. It is soaked with the blood of poets, theologians, philosophers, philologists, psychologists, biologists, and neurologists, along with whatever blood can be got out of grammarians." 1


Areas of theoretical linguistics

Theoretical linguistics is often divided into a number of separate areas, to be studied more or less independently. The following divisions are currently widely acknowledged:

  • Phonetics, the study of the different sounds that are employed across all human languages
  • Phonology, the study of patterns of a language's basic sounds
  • Morphology, the study of the internal structure of words
  • Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences
  • Semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences; and
  • Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used (literally, figuratively, or otherwise) in communicative acts
  • Historical linguistics, the study of languages whose historical relations are recognizable through similarities in vocabulary, word formation, and syntax.
  • Linguistic Typology, the study of the grammatical features that are employed across all human languages
  • Stylistics, the study of style in languages

The independent significance of each of these areas is not universally acknowledged, however, and nearly all linguists would agree that the divisions overlap considerably. Nevertheless, each sub-area has core concepts that foster significant scholarly inquiry and research.

Diachronic linguistics

Whereas the core of theoretical linguistics is concerned with studying languages at a particular point in time (usually the present), diachronic linguistics examines how language changes through time, sometimes over centuries. Historical linguistics enjoys both a rich history (the study of linguistics grew out of historical linguistics) and a strong theoretical foundation for the study of language change.

In American universities, the non-historic perspective seems to have the upper hand. Many introductory linguistics classes, for example, cover historical linguistics only cursorily. 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.

Applied linguistics

Whereas theoretical linguistics is concerned with finding and describing generalities both within languages and among all languages, as a group, applied linguistics takes the results of those findings and applies them to other areas. Usually applied linguistics refers to the use of linguistic research in language teaching, but linguistics is used in other areas, as well. Speech synthesis and speech recognition, for example, use linguistic knowledge to provide voice interfaces to computers.

Contextual linguistics

Contextual linguistics is that realm where linguistics interacts with other academic disciplines. Whereas core theoretical linguistics studies languages for their own sake, the interdisciplinary areas of linguistic consider how language interacts with the rest of the world. However, that rather depends upon their world-view.

Sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and linguistic anthropology are where the social sciences that consider societies as whole and linguistics interact.

Critical discourse analysis is where rhetoric and philosophy interact with linguistics.

Psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics is the where the medical sciences meets linguistics.

Other cross-disciplinary areas of linguistics include language acquisition, evolutionary linguistics, stratificational linguistics, and cognitive science.

Individual speakers, language communities, and linguistic universals

Linguists also differ in how broad a group of language users they study. Some analyze a given speaker's language or language development in great detail. Some study language pertaining to a whole speech community, such as the language of all those who speak Black English Vernacular ("Ebonics"). Others try to find linguistic universals that apply, at some abstract level, to all users of human language everywhere. This latter project has been most famously advocated by Noam Chomsky, and it interests many people in psycholinguistics and cognitive science. It is thought that universals in human language may reveal important insight into universals about the human mind.

Prescription and description

Main article: Prescription and description.

Most work currently done under the name "linguistics" is purely descriptive; the linguists seek to clarify the nature of language without passing value judgments or trying to chart future language directions. Nonetheless, there are many professionals and amateurs who also prescribe rules of language, holding a particular standard out for all to follow.

Prescriptivists tend to be found among the ranks of language educators. They hold clear notions of what is right and wrong, and may assign themselves the responsibility of ensuring that the next generation uses the variety of language that is most likely to lead to "success". The reasons for their intolerance of "incorrect usage" may include distrust of neologisms, connections to socially-disapproved dialects or simple conflicts with personal pet theories. An extreme version of prescriptivism can be found among censors, whose personal mission is to eradicate words and structures they consider to be destructive to civilization.

Descriptivists, on the other hand, seek to find the root of "incorrect usage". They might describe it simply as "idiosyncratic", or they may discover a regularity (a rule) that agitates the prescriptivists. Within the context of fieldwork, descriptive linguistics refers to the study of language using a descriptivist (rather than a prescriptivist) approach. Descriptivist methodology more closely resembles scientific methodolody in other disciplines.

Speech versus writing

Most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken language is more fundamental, and thus more important to study, than writing. Reasons for this standpoint include:

  • Speech appears to be a human universal, whereas there have been many cultures and speech communities that lack written communication;
  • People learn to speak and process oral language more easily and earlier than writing;
  • A number of cognitive scientists argue that the brain has an innate "language module", knowledge of which is thought to come more from studying speech than writing.

Of course, linguists agree that the study of written language can be worthwhile and valuable. For linguistic research that uses the methods of corpus linguistics and computational linguistics, written language is often much more convenient for processing large amounts of linguistic data. Large corpuses of spoken language are difficult to create and hard to find.

Furthermore, the study of writing systems themselves falls under the aegis of linguistics.

Research areas of linguistics

Interdisciplinary linguistic research

Important linguists and schools of thought

Early scholars of linguistics include Jakob Grimm, who devised the principle of consonantal shifts in pronunciation known as Grimm's Law in 1822, Karl Verner, who discovered Verner's Law, August Schleicher who created the "Stammbaumtheorie" and Johannes Schmidt who developed the "Wellentheorie" ("wave model") in 1872. Ferdinand de Saussure was the founder of modern structural linguistics. 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 one from the 1960s.

Other important linguists and schools include Michael Halliday, whose systemic functional grammar is pursued widely in the U.K., Canada, Australia, China, and Japan; Dell Hymes, who developed a pragmatic approach called The Ethnography of Speaking; George Lakoff, Leonard Talmy, and Ronald Langacker, who were pioneers in cognitive linguistics; Charles Fillmore and Adele Goldberg, who are associated with construction grammar; and linguists developing several varieties of what they call functional grammar, including Talmy Givon and Robert Van Valin, Jr..

Representation of speech

Narrower conceptions of "linguistics"

"Linguistics" and "linguist" may not always be meant to apply as broadly as above. In some contexts, the best definitions may be "what is studied in a typical university's department of linguistics", and "one who is a professor in such a department." Linguistics in this narrow sense usually does not refer to learning to speak foreign languages (except insofar as this helps to craft formal models of language.) It does not include literary analysis. Only sometimes does it include study of things such as metaphor. It probably does not apply to those engaged in such prescriptive efforts as found in Strunk and White's The Elements of Style; "linguists" usually seek to study what people do, not what they should do. One could probably argue for a long while about who is and who is not a "linguist".

See also



  • Akmajian, Adrian et al (2001), Linguistics, 5th ed., MIT Press. (ISBN 0262511231)
  • Lyons, John (1995), Linguistic Semantics, Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0521438772)
  • O'Grady, William D., Michael Dobrovolsky & Francis Katamba [eds.] (2001), Contemporary Linguistics, Longman. (ISBN 0582246911) - Lower Level
  • Taylor, John R. (2003), Cognitive Grammar, Oxford University Press. (ISBN 0198700334)
  • Ungerer, Friedrich & Hans-Jorg Schmid (1996), An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Longman. (ISBN 0582239664)

Academic works

  • Fauconnier, Gilles
    • (1995), Mental Spaces, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0521449499)
    • (1997), Mappings in Thought and Language, Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0521599539)
    • & Mark Turner (2003), The Way We Think, Basic Books. (ISBN 0465087868)
      • Rymer, p. 48, quoted in Fauconnier and Turner, p. 353
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (1982), Schools of Linguistics, Stanford University Press. (ISBN 0804711259)
  • Sweetser, Eve (1992), From Etymology to Pragmatics, repr ed., Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0521424429)

Popular works

  • Deacon, Terrence (1998), The Symbolic Species, WW Norton & Co. (ISBN 0393317544)
  • Pinker, Steven
    • (2000), The Language Instinct, repr ed., Perennial. (ISBN 0060958332)
    • (2000), Words and Rules, Perennial. (ISBN 0060958405)
  • Rymer, Russ (1992), Annals of Science in "The New Yorker (http://newyorker.com/)", 13th April

Reference books

  • Aronoff, Mark & Janie Rees-Miller [eds.] (2003), The Handbook of Linguistics, Blackwell Publishers. (ISBN 1405102527)
  • Malmkjaer, Kirsten [ed.] (2004), The Linguistics Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., Routledge. (ISBN 0415222109)
  • Skeat, Walter W. (2000), The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, repr ed., Diane. (ISBN 0788191616)

External links

Wikibooks Wikiversity has more about this subject:
  • Linguistics and Human Languages in the Yahoo! Directory (http://dir.yahoo.com/Social_Science/Linguistics_and_Human_Languages/)
  • Amazon.com Books - Linguistics (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/browse/-/11986/)
  • "Linguistics" section (http://www.unizar.es/departamentos/filologia_inglesa/garciala/bibliography.html) of A Bibliography of Literary Theory, Criticism and Philology, ed. J. A. García Landa (University of Zaragoza, Spain)

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