Language has always fascinated human beings, and linguistics, the study of language, is concerned with how people use language and what they must know in order to do so.
Modern linguists study many different facets of language, from the physical properties of the sound waves in utterances to the intentions of speakers in conversations and the social contexts in which conversations occur.
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.
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.
If you're interested in more information about studying linguistics, please see our popular "Why Major in Linguistics?" pamphlet, the searchable online Directory of Departments and Programs, as well as the articles below from "The Domain of Linguistics," a series first published by the Linguistic Society of America in 1982. Facilitated by a Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, it was written to explain the discipline to the general public.
- Grammar by S. Chung/G. Pullum
- The Sounds of Speech by M. Halle
- Language Variation and Change by S. Thomason
- Multilingualism by G. Valdés
- Linguistics and Literature by D. Freeman
- Languages in Contact by D. Winford
- History of Modern Linguistics by F. Newmeyer
More articles in the Domain of Linguistics