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Theoretical linguistics
Lexical semantics
Applied linguistics
Cognitive linguistics
Historical linguistics

Broadly conceived, linguistics is the study of human language , anda linguist is someone who engages in this study. The study of linguistics can be thought of along three majoraxes, the endpoints of which are described below:

  • Synchronic and diachronic -- Synchronic study of a language is concerned with its form at a given moment; diachronic studycovers the history of a language (group) and its structural changes over time.
  • Theoretical and applied -- Theoretical linguistics is concerned with frameworks for describing individual languages andtheories about universal aspects of language; applied lingusitics applies these theories to other fields.
  • Contextual and independent -- Contextual linguistics is concerned with how language fits into the world: its social function,how it is acquired, how it is produced and perceived. Independent linguistics considers languages for their own sake,aside from the externalities related to a language. Terms for this dichotomy are not yet well established--the Encyclopędia Britannica uses macrolinguistics andmicrolinguistics instead.

Given these dichotomies, scholars who call themselves simply linguists or theoretical linguists, with nofurther qualification, tend to be concerned with independent, theoretical synchronic linguistics, which is acknowledged as thecore of the discipline.

Linguistic inquiry is pursued by a wide variety of specialists, who may not allbe in harmonious agreement; as RussRymer flamboyantly puts it:

"Linguistics is arguably the most hotly contested property in the academic realm. It is soaked with the blood of poets , theologians , philosophers , philologists , psychologists , biologists , and neurologists , along with whatever blood can be got out of grammarians ." 1


Areas of theoretical linguistics

Theoretical linguistics is often divided into a number of separate areas, to be studied more or less independently. Thefollowing divisions are currently widely acknowledged:

  • phonetics , the study of the different sounds that are employed across allhuman languages;
  • phonology , the study of patterns of a language's basic sounds;
  • morphology , the study of the internalstructure of words;
  • syntax , the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences
  • semantics , the study of the meaning of words ( lexical semantics ), and how these combine to form the meanings ofsentences;
  • stylistics , the study of style inlanguages;
  • pragmatics , the study of how utterances are used (literally, figuratively,or otherwise) in communicative acts;

The independent significance of each of these areas is not universally acknowledged, however, and nearly all linguists wouldagree that the divisions overlap considerably. Nevertheless, each subarea has core concepts that foster significant scholarlyinquiry and research.

Diachronic linguistics

Whereas the core of theoretical linguistics is concerned with studying languages at a particular point in time (usually thepresent), diachronic linguistics examines how language changes through time, sometimes over centuries. Historical linguisticsenjoys both a rich history (the study of linguistics grew out of historical linguistics) and a strong theoretical foundation forthe study of language change.

In American universities, the non-historic perspective seems to have the upper hand. Many introductory linguistics classes,for example, cover historical linguistics only cursorily. The shift in focus to a non-historic perspective started with Saussure and became predominant with Noam Chomsky .

Explicitly historical perspectives include historical-comparative linguistics and etymology .

Applied linguistics

Whereas theoretical linguistics is concerned with finding and describing generalities both within languages and among alllanguages, as a group, applied linguistics takes the resultsof those findings and applies them to other areas. Usually applied linguistics refers to the use of linguisticresearch in language teaching, but linguistics is used in other areas, as well. Speech synthesis and Speech recognition ,for example, use linguistic knowledge to provide voice interfaces to computers.

Contextual linguistics

Contextual linguistics is that realm where linguistics interacts with other academic disciplines. Whereas core theoreticallinguistics studies languages for their own sake, the interdisciplinary areas of linguistic consider how language interacts withthe rest of the world. But that rather depends upon their world-view.

Sociolinguistics , anthropological linguistics , and linguistic anthropology are where the social sciences that consider societies as whole andlinguistics interact.

Critical discourse analysis is where rhetoric and philosophy interactwith linguistics.

Psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics is the where the medicalsciences meets linguistics.

Other cross-disciplinary areas of linguistics include language acquisition , evolutionary linguistics , stratificational linguistics , and cognitive science .

Individual speakers, language communities, and linguistic universals

Linguists also differ in how broad a group of language users they study. Some analyze a given speaker's language or language development ingreat detail. Some study language pertaining to a whole speech community , such as the language of all those who speak Black English Vernacular . Others try to find linguistic universals that apply, at some abstract level, to allusers of human language everywhere. This latter project has been mostfamously advocated by Noam Chomsky , and it interests many people in psycholinguistics and cognitive science . It is thought that universals in human language may reveal important insight intouniversals about the human mind .

Description and prescription

Most work currently done under the name "linguistics" is purely descriptive; the linguists seek to clarify the nature oflanguage without passing value judgments or trying to chart future language directions. Nonetheless, there are many professionalsand amateurs who also prescribe rules of language, holding a particularstandard out for all to follow.

Whereas prescriptivists might want to stamp out what they perceive as "incorrect usage", descriptivists seek to find the rootof such usage; they might describe it simply as " idiosyncratic ", or they may discover a regularity that the prescriptivists don't like because it isperhaps too new or from a dialect they don't approve of.

Speech versus writing

Most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken language is morefundamental, and thus more important to study, than writing . Reasons for thisstandpoint include:

  • Speech appears to be a human universal, whereas there are and have been many cultures that lack written communication;
  • People learn to speak and process oral language easier and earlier than writing;
  • A number of cognitive scientists argue that the brain has an innate " language module ", knowledge of which is thought tocome more from studying speech than writing.

Of course, linguists agree that that the study of written language can be worthwhile and valuable. For linguistic researchthat uses the methods of corpus linguistics and computational linguistics , written language is often muchmore convenient for processing large amounts of linguistic data. Large corpuses of spoken language are difficult to create andhard to find.

Furthermore, the study of writing systems themselves falls underthe aegis of linguistics.

Research areas of linguistics

phonetics , phonology , syntax , semantics , pragmatics , etymology , lexicology , lexicography , theoretical linguistics , historical-comparative linguistics and descriptive linguistics , linguistic typology , computational linguistics , corpuslinguistics , semiotics .

Interdisciplinary linguistic research

applied linguistics , historical linguistics , orthography , writing systems , comparative linguistics , cryptanalysis , decipherment , sociolinguistics , critical discourse analysis , psycholinguistics , languageacquisition , evolutionary linguistics , anthropological linguistics , stratificational linguistics , text linguistics , cognitive science , neurolinguistics , and in computational linguistics there is natural language understanding , speech recognition , speaker recognition (authentication), speechsynthesis , and more generally, speech processing

Important linguists and schools of thought

Early scholars of linguistics include Jakob Grimm , who devised the principle of consonantal shifts in pronunciation known as Grimm's Law in 1822, KarlVerner , who discovered Verner's Law , August Schleicher who created the "Stammbaumtheorie" and Johannes Schmidt who developed the"Wellentheorie" ("wave model") in 1872. Ferdinand deSaussure was the founder of modern structural linguistics. NoamChomsky's formal model of language, transformational-generative grammar , developed under the influence of his teacher Zellig Harris , who was in turn strongly influenced by Leonard Bloomfield , has been the dominant one from the 1960s .

Other important linguists and schools include Michael Halliday , whose systemic functional grammar is pursued widely in the U.K. , Canada , Australia , China , and Japan ; Dell Hymes , who developed a pragmatic approach called The Ethnography ofSpeaking; George Lakoff , Len Talmy , and Ronald Langacker , who werepioneers in cognitive linguistics ; Charles Fillmore and Adele Goldberg , who are associated with construction grammar ; andlinguists developing several varieties of what they call functionalgrammar , including Talmy Givon and Robert Van Valin, Jr. .

Representation of speech

Narrower conceptions of "linguistics"

"Linguistics" and " linguist " may not always be meant to apply as broadly asabove. In some contexts, the best definitions may be "what is studied in atypical university's department of linguistics", and "one who is a professor insuch a department." Linguistics in this narrow sense usually does not refer to learning to speak foreign languages (exceptinsofar as this helps to craft formal models of language.) It does not include literary analysis . Onlysometimes does it include study of things such as metaphor . It probably does notapply to those engaged in such prescriptive efforts as found in Strunk and White 's The Elements of Style ; "linguists" usually seek to studywhat people do, not what they should do. One could probably argue for a long while about who is and who is not a"linguist".

See also


  • Geoffrey Sampson :"Schools of Linguistics.", Hutchinson, London (1980), ISBN 0804710848
  • Rymer, p. 48, quoted in Fauconnier and Turner, p. 353)
  • Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. BasicBooks.
  • Rymer, Russ (1992). "Annals of Science: A Silent Childhood-I". New Yorker, April 13.
  • Steven Pinker , The Language Instinct

External links

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