Linguistics is fascinating.
More specifically, linguistics is the study of the science of language. By this I mean that linguistics focuses on describing the systems of language use in humans – by definition, humans are the only species to possess language. Following is a summary of the field, short but sweet.
The concept of exploring the science behind something that we use every day without giving it conscious thought likely doesn’t come as a shock to anyone who has attempted to learn a foreign language. But to some, it may sound odd. Is there really a science in the way we speak? Absolutely. And this is what linguistics attempts to do: explain human speech (and, by extension, human writing systems, though many would consider this somewhat separate from linguistics proper). There are many things in our everyday lives that we can do without understanding; take, for example, breathing. Language is the same. And the study of each of these – breathing and language – is extremely beneficial to us as people. I’ll leave an analysis of respiration to the breathing experts; here, we concern ourselves with language.
Language is extremely varied across its users, and this is obvious from the most rudimentary of glances. Chinese, after all, is not English, and Spanish is not Arabic. But languages also differ in fewer ways than you may imagine. Chinese and English, for all their differences, are both heavily isolating, meaning that they do not stack meaningful parts together on one word, but prefer to put different words next to one another in a given sequence in order to communicate meaning. Arabic and Spanish are, admittedly, highly dissimilar, but did you know that Spanish has borrowed quite a few words from Arabic? Words like almohada (pillow) and ajedrez (chess) are examples. This is a good example of how languages are not islands, in nearly all cases. They interact, they shape and change one another. This, too, is a subject of study within linguistics.
Linguistics is divided into many sub-categories, and there are many different schools of thought involved in our description of language. I like to divide language into six pieces, each piece being a part of a language that can be studied: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.
Phonetics is the study of the physical components of the sounds of language. Phonology studies sounds in context in a given language (and the changes that take place as a result of context). That is, where phonetics is concerned with speech sounds per se, phonology investigates systems of sound within specific languages. Morphology deals with changes to and relationships between morphemes (meaningful pieces), including processes such as prefixation, suffixation, and inflection and derivation. Syntax is the consideration of how pieces fit together in a phrase or sentence – in English, the study of why I comes before the verb and you after the verb in I don’t like you would be in the domain of syntax. Semantics could be called the study of the meaning of words, and pragmatics the study of the meaning of words in context. For example, you can say that the word bad means the opposite of good; but you need pragmatics to tell you that bad in Those shoes are bad (with stress particularly on the last word) can and often does have (for example, in African American English) quite nearly the exact opposite meaning.
The schools within linguistics are many and varied, but right now the argument lies mostly between the formalists and the functionalists. The main question asked is: do abstract systems in our brains control our language use (formalism), or is the form of language determined by the function of language (functionalism)? Though this may seem to be splitting hairs, the answer to this question and others will make our understanding of language much more accurate, and this can then have an impact on how we teach, learn, and think about foreign languages, as well as on how we use our native language. These questions are important, not just at an academic or scientific level, but in our everyday lives.
Linguistics as a field has many subfields within it. For example, we have historical linguistics, which focuses on how languages change over time; there’s psycholinguistics, which concerns itself with the psychological realities underlying language. Additionally, there’s sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and forensic linguistics, among many others. For more on linguistic subfields, you can read this post.
Linguistics explores all of this and more. Language is bigger than we imagine, and it touches our lives in more ways than we care to notice. Of course, we can all say we know language is a big part of our lives. How deep does language go? How complex does it get? Why does it matter? Stay tuned to explore these and other questions further.