by Geoff Nunberg and Tom Wasow

An Example of Language Use

Pat: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Chris: I give up.
Pat: To get to the other side.

Most of us heard this joke when we were small children and find nothing remarkable in the ability to engage in such exchanges. But a bit of reflection reveals that even such a mundane use of language involves an amazing combination of abilities.

Think about it: Pat makes some vocal noises, with the effect that Chris entertains thoughts of a scenario involving a fowl and a thoroughfare. This leads to an exchange of utterances, possibly laughter, and the conviction by both parties that Pat has 'told a joke'. to top

Prerequisites for Language Use

What does it take to make communication through language succeed? Here are just a few of the many things that are necessary for the exchange above:

Pat's first two words 'why did' sound exactly the same as 'wide id'. Breaking the stream of sounds into words requires that Chris pays attention to the wider context and knows what makes sense and what doesn't.

Words like 'chicken' and 'cross' have lots of meanings (consider, for example, one gangster saying to another, 'You won't cross me because you're chicken'). To conjure up the image of a bird and a highway, Chris must identify the right choices for these.

Pat has to know to say 'cross', not 'crossed' or 'crossing' in this context.

The order of words could not be 'Why the chicken did cross the road?' or any of lots of other conceivable orders.

Chris's utterance ('I give up') is entirely conventional, signalling recognition that Pat is posing a riddle, and that Chris is ready to hear the punchline. The recognition that the first sentence was a riddle again depends on its relation to the wider context and cultural knowledge.

The punchline is not a complete sentence; Chris must recognize that it means that the chicken crossed the road in order to get to the other side.

In order to get the joke, Chris must know that answers to such 'why' questions normally involve some longer-term objective.

The Domain of Linguistics

Linguistics, the study of language, concerns itself with all aspects of how people use language and what they must know in order to do so. As a universal characteristic of the species, language has always held a special fascination for human beings, and the history of linguistics as a systematic field of study goes back almost three thousand years.

Modern linguists concern themselves with many different facets of language, from the physical properties of the sound waves in utterances to the intentions of speakers towards others in conversations and the social contexts in which conversations are embedded. The branches of linguistics are concerned with how languages are structured, how languages are used, and how they change.

Language as a Formal System

Linguistic structure can be studied at many different levels. The sounds of language can be investigated by looking at the physics of the speech stream and by studying the physiology of the vocal tract and auditory system. A more psychological approach is also possible, namely considering what physical properties of the vocal tract or muscalature are used to make linguistic distinctions, and how the sounds of languages pattern.

Words, phrases, and sentences have internal structure. Many words are made up of smaller meaningful units, such as stems and suffixes; for example, stem 'happy' + suffix '-ly'. Linguists investigate the different ways such pieces can be put together to form words, a study called morphology. Likewise, words cluster together into phrases, which combine to make sentences, and linguists explore the rules governing such combinations. The scientific study of word structure and sentence structure is what modern linguists mean by the term grammar; this is quite different from the sort of 'normative' grammar instruction aimed to teach 'proper usage' common in primary and secondary school, which linguists call prescriptivism. Words and sentences are used to convey meanings.

Linguists study this too, seeking to specify precisely what words mean, how they combine into sentence meanings, and how these combine with contextual information to convey the speaker's thoughts. The first two of these areas of investigation are called semantics, and the third is called pragmatics.

Language as a Human Phenomenon

Even the most formal and abstract work on linguistic structure is colored by the awareness that language is a uniquely human phenomenon. It is lodged in human brains; it is passed on from one generation to the next; it is intimately bound up with the forms of human thought. Unlike a specialized system like arithmetic, it serves a vast range of communicative needs—from getting your neighbor to keep the weeds down, to reporting simple facts, telling jokes, making declarations of love, or praying to a deity. And of course it functions in the midst of complex societies, not just as a means of communication, but as a marker of social identity—a sign of membership in a social class, ethnic group, or nation. It isn't surprising, then, that linguistic research shares some concerns with just about every one of the human sciences, from psychology and neurology to literary study, anthropology, sociology, and political science.

All languages change. In other words, languages have histories, and a complete understanding of a linguistic structure often involves examining variation and change in the language under investigation. This is extremely difficult in most cases, because the vast majority of languages have had no writing systems until very recently.

Important as historical explanations and evidence are in linguistics, they are not necessary for competent language use—and most speakers don't know anything about them. Hence, most linguistic explanations focus on what speakers must know in order to speak and understand language the way all normal humans do. There are many facets to the study of language and brain. It encompasses both child language acquisition and how adults produce and process language.

One particularly fascinating question is whether our language shapes the way we perceive the world and if so, how? In particular, can there be thinking without language? Such questions have fascinated people for thousands of years, but only in recent times have researchers been in a position to examine them scientifically and to investigate how languages can reflect or reinforce particular ways of looking at the world and the world-views of particular cultures.

Linguists document the remarkable diversity of means of expression employed in the languages of the world. At the same time, though, researchers have come to understand that many of the features of language are universal, both because there are universal aspects to human experience and because language has a built-in biological basis. This latter subject belongs to the subfield called neurolinguistics, which studies how language is realized in the human brain. The connection can be revealed through experiment or by studying the way brain damage can lead to disruptions of language function in disorders like dyslexia or aphasia. Or it can be revealed in more subtle ways, like the slips of the tongue that people make, which can shed light on the mental circuitry of language in something like the way a computer malfunction can shed light on how it is programmed or how its hardware was designed. It can also be revealed by the changes that can take place in language and by the limitations which make some changes impossible.

Language as a Social Phenomenon

The social life of language begins with the smallest and most informal interactions. Every conversation is a social transaction, governed by rules that determine how sentences are put together into larger discourses—stories, jokes, or whatever—and how participants take turns speaking and let each other know that they are attending to what is being said. The organization of these interactions is the subject of the subfield called discourse analysis.

Another, related, area of study concerns the literary uses of language, which involve the particular rules that shape poetic structure or the organization of forms like the sonnet or the novel, and which often make special use of devices like metaphor—though to be sure, linguists have discovered too that metaphor and figurative language are essential elements of everyday forms of speech.

At a larger level, the field of sociolinguistics is also concerned with the way the divisions of societies into social classes and ethnic, religious, and racial groups are often mirrored by linguistic differences. Of particular interest here, too, is the way language is used differently by men and women.

In most parts of the world, communities use more than one language, and the phenomenon of bilingualism or multilingualism has a special interest for linguists. Multilingualism raises particular psychological questions: How do two or more languages coexist within an individual mind? How do bilingual individuals decide when to switch from one language to another? It also raises questions at the level of the community, where the question of which language to use is determined by tacit understandings, and sometimes by official rules and regulations that may invoke difficult questions about the relation of language to nationality. In many nations, including the US, there are currently important debates about establishing an official language.

Multilingual communities are interesting to linguists for another reason: Languages that come into contact can influence each other in various ways, sometimes converging in grammar or other features. Under certain social conditions, a mix of languages can give rise to 'new' languages called pidgins and creoles, which have a particular interest for linguists because of the way they shed light on language structure and function. Often, though, the result when languages come into contact is that one becomes dominant at the expense of the other, especially when the contact pits a widely used language of a powerful community against a local or minority language. Modern communications have accelerated this process, to the point where the majority of the languages currently used in the world are endangered, and may disappear within a few generations—a situation that causes linguists concerns that go beyond the purely academic.

Applications of Linguistics

Linguistics can have applications wherever language itself becomes a matter of practical concern. Strictly speaking, then, the domain of applied linguistics is not a single field or subfield, but can range from the research on multilingualism the teaching and learning of foreign languages to studies of neurolinguistic disorders like aphasia and of various speech and hearing defects. It includes work in the area of language planning, like the efforts to devise writing systems for languages in the post-colonial world, and the efforts to standardize terminologies for various technical domains, or to revitalize endangered languages.

Examples of the applications of linguistics can be multiplied indefinitely. The techniques of discourse analysis have been applied to the problem of avoiding air accidents due to miscommunication and to the problems of communication between members of different ethnic groups. And linguists are increasingly called on in legal proceedings that turn on questions of precise interpretation, a development that has given rise to a new field of study of language and law.

Probably the oldest forms of applied linguistics are the preparation of dictionaries and the field of interpretation and translation, all of which have been greatly influenced by the advent of the computer. The applications of computers to language have not been limited to these areas, though; they extend to the development of interfaces that enable people to interact with computers using ordinary language, of systems capable of understanding speech and writing, and of techniques that allow people to retrieve information more effectively from text databases or from the Web. Not surprisingly, then, an increasing number of linguists are working in high-tech industries.