Linguistics as a discipline is split into many parts. Like in any science, there are focuses within the study that represent branchings off of the discipline into sub-fields; all of these sub-fields come together to reveal insights about human language and how it relates to other pieces of the world around us. Here, we’re going to review just a few, to whet your proverbial whistle for linguistics and what we can learn from it.
Our first sub-field is theoretical linguistics. This field asks and (ideally) answers questions about formal language systems – what are they like, how do they operate, how do we know what we know about language? Theoretical linguistics is a large sub-field, in that it houses within it many specific subjects of study, such as phonetics, phonology, and semantics. There are also many approaches to the theory of language, such as universal grammar (UG), head-driven phrase structure grammar (HPSG), and role and reference grammar (RRG). This listing of theories exemplifies nicely what theoretical linguists are trying to do, which is to answer these and similar questions: How does language operate? What is the nature of language, per se? How is language structured? To this end, theoretical linguists have been working for millennia to understand language and all its parts. Theoretical linguistics is the bedrock of linguistics, in that the other branches of linguistics use information gathered here to inform their work and help them to interpret results.
The second sub-field of linguistics we’ll take a look at is historical linguistics. Closely related to comparative linguistics (in fact, comparative is considered to be a branch of historical), historical linguistics is concerned with how languages change over time, and therefore, the genetic relationships between different languages. Genetic relationships are exactly what they sound like: just as humans have mothers, grandmothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, so languages are related to one another to various degrees. As an example, we will take Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, and German. German belongs to what is called the Indo-European family, which also includes English, Spanish, Hindi, Afrikaans, Polish, and Farsi. This family is large, but more importantly, it is geographically situated over the area of the world that, for hundreds or thousands of years, has been the center of politics, innovation, and academia. The ancestor of the IE family is called Proto-Indo-European. In linguistics, this “proto” means that it is a language that has not been attested to, but rather reconstructed by historical linguists. Mandarin Chinese belongs to the Sino-Tibetan family, which is spread over a large area of Southeast Asia. Some of its sister languages (as they are called) are Wu Chinese, Cantonese, Burmese, and Tibetan. The ancestor of these languages is (you guessed it) Proto-Sino-Tibetan. Finally, Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family, and is related to Hebrew and Amharic (all descendants of Proto-Semitic).
A language’s relationship to other languages is determined, by and large, by a technique known as the comparative method. This method analyzes words and constructions in languages in order to determine if they split from a single source, or if there is no genetic relation, in which case there may still be similarities, through processes known as borrowing and areal diffusion. Historical linguistics is fascinating, and lends itself to thousands of hours of study, even with a single language.
Psycholinguistics focuses on the processes in the mind that humans use to learn, understand, and produce language. Psycholinguistic research is often in the areas of first language (L1) acquisition, L2 acquisition, hearing comprehension, reading comprehension, production, and loss of language ability. Psycholinguistics interfaces with neurolinguistics, but remains less interested in neurons and physical aspects of language use.
The newest paths in psycholinguistics right now are in first and second language acquisition, as well as in language loss. How do infants learn a language? What is the nature of the connections between concepts and words in our mental lexicon? What processes are hampered with the result that production of language is more difficult? The answers to these questions and more are valuable to the scientific and academic communities, but they are also valuable to the layman. Psycholinguistic theories are at the root of every approach to learning language, and as our understanding of how second languages are represented in the mind grows, so our strategies for L2 learning change. Questions about difficulty producing one’s first language can also oftentimes be answered from a psycholinguistic point of view.
Not surprisingly, anthropological linguistics explores social aspects of language. One major difference between anthropological linguistics and sociolinguistics (see below) is that anthropological linguistics tends to focus more on individuals, rather than on large swaths of data.
Anthropological linguists study speech patterns of individuals and small groups; they spend a lot of time with discourse analysis, seeking to understand on an intimate level discourse markers and other specific aspects of speech. Anthropological linguists may deal heavily in pragmatics – language in context – as they seek to study individual cases and expand their findings to larger groups. One important question in anthropological linguistics is that regarding codeswitching, or the switching back and forth between two (or more) languages in which a person is fluent in the course of a single conversation. Why do people engage in this activity? Anthropological linguistics shows us that it is not necessarily to convey different semantic meaning (although this is sometimes the motivation); rather, codeswitching tends to communicate social information, as in group identity. Anthropological linguistics is likely the most important field in helping us to understand people who use language differently than we do.
Sociolinguistics, as mentioned above, is closely related to anthropological linguistics. But the former is more of a big-picture view than the latter. Sociolinguistics concerns itself with society at large, and how society and language interact.
A sociolinguist may explore such social constructs as class, and how social constructs and language relate to one another. He or she may study the status of certain languages or dialects. For example, how is African American English viewed in the United States? In what esteem is Canadian French held by Canadian people? Is Received Pronunciation the most acceptable form of spoken English in the UK? Sociolinguistics explores culture and society and language, and deals, like anthropological linguistics, with pragmatics.
Linguistics is a wide and varied field. A linguist may specialize in one or two or a few sub-fields, but all the parts need to be used together to broaden and deepen our understanding of language. What we learn in anthropological linguistics may change our psycholinguistic thinking; discovering a new genetic relationship between two languages can help our language-teaching efforts. It’s a big, beautiful, complex linguistic world out there. Keep exploring.