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What is Linguistics?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 23, 2024
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Linguistics is a large field, or set of fields, involving the scientific study of language. At the interface between the sciences and humanities, linguistics is a battleground for anthropologists, philosophers, philologists, poets, theologians, psychologists, biologists, and neurologists, all of whom seek to describe language and how it works from their own perspective. The ever-receding and highly ambitious goal is a theory of how all aspects of language work.

Linguistics has many sub-fields. This includes comparative linguistics (which compares languages to each other), historical linguistics (history of language), and applied linguistics (putting linguistic theories to practical use). As a whole, linguistics concerns itself with three major problems: how we learn languages, how languages vary, and what is universal to language. Serious progress has been made on these questions during the 20th century, but there is still much more to investigate. Language is probably the most complex form of human behavior.

Many of the sub-fields of linguistics are arranged on a spectrum from concrete form to abstract meaning. Ranging from concrete to abstract, these include phonetics (the physical properties of speaking and listening), phonology (the study of specific sounds that make up words), morphology (the study of word structures and variations), syntax (how words are arranged into sentences), semantics (the meaning of words), pragmatics (how sentences are used to communicate messages in specific contexts), and discourse analysis (the highest level of analysis, looking at texts). Many students gain some exposure to these concepts as early as elementary school, but delving deeply into them tends to be a job for language majors or linguists.

Linguistic theories have many large holes which need to be filled, but possibly one of the most interesting is the question of the origin of language: we have little idea when it was. It could been as long as 2.2 million years ago, with early members of the genus Homo, like Homo habilis, or as recently as 200,000 years ago, when modern humans evolved in Africa. Because spoken language leaves no artifacts, analysis of early language use circumstantial evidence like tool complexity. Based on anatomical studies, many scientists suspect that Neanderthals had some rudimentary form of language, and crude reconstructions of Neanderthals pronouncing vowel noises have been synthesized in computers.

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Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated Language & Humanities contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By FitzMaurice — On Jul 16, 2010

@SilentBlue - I would add: not only is the human mind requisite of "thinking outside the box," but the movements, conquests, and migrations of groups of people over time seem arbitrary and affected by all manner of random chance.

One example of this is the fact that many people groups would completely shift their vocabulary over short periods of time due to religious views or veneration for the dead. Often, tribes would not use certain words which associated with a deceased tribal leader for fear of awakening his spirit.

In all cases, language is constantly changing over time, and (especially) in the case of English, a few hundred years makes an immense difference in both structure and vocabulary.

By GigaGold — On Jul 16, 2010

A necessary sub-field of linguistics is Pragmatics, which deals with the way language is used in everyday life. Pragmatics is often grouped together with Semantics because of its relation to meaning, however, unlike Semantics, Pragmatics deals primarily with descriptive meaning (words varying according to context and immediate use) rather than prescriptive meaning (such as a rigid dictionary definition).

Pragmatics is probably the most essential key to understanding the fluidity of modern languages in an internet world whose "lingo" is deeply interconnected. Pragmatics is also the key to understanding the difference between "language" and "dialect."

For example: why do we consider Mandarin and Cantonese to be two different "dialects" of Chinese, even though they are mutually unintelligible, but consider Portuguese and Spanish to be different "languages" even though speakers of these two languages are often able to understand each other?

By SilentBlue — On Jul 16, 2010

This field is ever growing and ever more complex for various reasons. The first is that for every question and subsequent answer, a thousand other questions are raised, sort of like the heads of a Lernaean Hydra (which grows more heads for every head you cut off of it).

The second big reason is that in studying Linguistics we are using language and our mind to study language and our minds. It takes many minds and much thinking to be able to think outside of "the box" which is comprised of our own mental constraints. In order to do this, it is necessary to obtain a "meta-linguistic" view of language by learning new languages and observing the various diverse aspects of these languages.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated Language & Humanities contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics,...
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