Monday, 10 February 2014

An Introduction to Linguistics


Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context.

1.    The first subfield of linguistics is the study of language structure, or grammar. This focuses on the system of rules followed by the users of a language. It includes the study of morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the formation and composition of phrases and sentences from these words), and phonology (sound systems). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds and nonspeech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.

2.    The study of language meaning is concerned with how languages employ logical structures and real-world references to convey, process, and assign meaning, as well as to manage and resolve ambiguity. This category includes the study of semantics (how meaning is inferred from words and concepts) and pragmatics (how meaning is inferred from context).

3.    Linguistics also looks at the broader context in which language is influenced by social, cultural, historical and political factors. This includes the study of evolutionary linguistics, which investigates into questions related to the origins and growth of languages; historical linguistics, which explores language change; sociolinguistics, which looks at the relation between linguistic variation and social structures; psycholinguistics, which explores the representation and function of language in the mind; neurolinguistics, which looks at language processing in the brain; language acquisition, on how children or adults acquire language; and discourse analysis, which involves the structure of texts and conversations.

    Linguistics can also be classified into two major branches Theoretical Linguistics which deals with the components of language (i.e. phonetics, phonology, syntax, semantics, and morphology); Applied Linguistics which is the application of linguistics theories to evaluate the language problems arisen from other professions like sociology (socio-linguistics), psychology (psycho-linguistics), linguistics and ethnography (ethno-linguistics), linguistics and geography (geo-linguistics), linguistics and neurology (neuro-linguistics), linguistics and philosophy (philosophical linguistics), linguistics and computer (computational linguistics) etc.


Linguistics levels are the levels of language structures. There is no consensus of opinion about the number and terminology of linguistics levels.

The language activity has three principal levels: substance, form and context. Substance is the raw material of language that may be phonic (audition) or graphic (visual or written). Form is the internal structure. It is grammar + lexis. Context is the relationship between form and situation. It is studied under the head semantics.

Different linguists describe these levels in different ways. Robert Hall recommends three levels: phonology, morphology and syntax. R.H. Robins also describes three: phonology, grammar and semantics.

Regarding language as a complex system or habits, C.F. Hockett divides this system into five main sub-systems as mentioned below:

1.    The Grammatical System: It is a stock of morphemes, and the arrangements in which they occur.

2.    The Phonological System: It is a stock of phonemes, and the arrangements in which they occur.

3.    The Morphophonemic System: It is a system of codes which ties together the grammatical and phonological system.

4.    The Semantic System: It is associated with various morphemes, combination of morphemes, and arrangements in which morphemes can be put, with things and situations, or kind of things and situations.

5.    The Phonetic System: It is about the ways in which sequences of phonemes are converted into sound waves by the articulation of a speaker, and are decoded from the speech signal by a hearer.

All the above levels are according to the convenience of the linguists in their studies of the subject matter. But all these aspects of language activity converge on the same point; only the names are different. They are all based on three types of pattern in language: the material (Substance), the structural (Form), and the environmental (Context).

It would be convenient to represent these levels in the following manner, with each level of analysis corresponding to each level of the structure of the language.

Levels of Analysis                         Levels of Structure

Phonetics and Phonology             Sound
                                              Letters (Graphology)
Morphology                               Word Formation
Syntax                                     Sentence Formation
Semantics                                 Meanings
Discourse                                  Connected Speech

A careful look at the above diagram will show that the levels of language structure are not completely separate from one another. In fact there are important and vital linkages between the levels.

Following are the various sub-fields in a structure-focused study of language:

·   Phonetics, the study of the physical properties of speech (or signed) production and perception.

·   Phonology, the study of sounds (or signs) as discrete, abstract elements in the speaker's mind that distinguish meaning (phonemes).

·   Morphology, the study of morphemes, or the internal structures of words and how they can be modified.

·   Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences.

·   Semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics) and fixed word combinations (phraseology), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences.

·   Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used in communicative acts, and the role played by context and non-linguistic knowledge in the transmission of meaning.

·   Discourse analysis, the analysis of language use in texts (spoken, written, or signed).

·   Stylistics, the study of linguistic factors (rhetoric, diction, stress) that place a discourse in context.

·   Semiotics, the study of signs and sign processes, indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication.


Comparative Linguistics

Comparative linguistics is the study and analysis, by means of written records, of the origins and relatedness of different languages. Comparative linguists look for similarities in the way words are formed in different languages. Latin and English, for example, change the form of a word to express different meanings, as when the English verb ‘go’ changes to ‘went’ and ‘gone’ to express a past action. Chinese, on the other hand, has no such inflected forms; the verb remains the same while other words indicate the time.

Socio Linguistics

Sociolinguistics is a term including the aspects of linguistics applied toward the connections between language and society, and the way we use it in different social situations. It ranges from the study of the wide variety of dialects across a given region down to the analysis between the way men and women speak to one another (sociolects, style, register etc.)

Sociolinguistics often shows us the humorous realities of human speech and how the use of language can often describe the age, sex, and social class of the speaker.

Psycho Linguistics

   Psycholinguistics or psychology of language is the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, comprehend and produce language.

     In other words it covers the cognitive processes that make it possible to generate a grammatical and meaningful sentence out of vocabulary and grammatical structures, as well as the processes that make it possible to understand utterances, words, text, etc. Developmental psycholinguistics studies children's ability to learn language. Behaviorism and Mentalism are very famous studies in this area.

Ethno Linguistics

Ethno linguistics (sometimes called cultural linguistics) is the study of language as an aspect or part of culture, especially the study of the influence of language on culture and of culture on language. In other words, it studies the way different ethnic groups perceive the world. For example, Eskimo has many words for ‘snow’, whereas Aztec employs a single term for the concepts of ‘snow’, ‘cold’, and ‘ice’. It is the combination between ethnology and linguistics. The former refers to the way of life of an entire community, i.e., all the characteristics which distinguish one community from the other. Several controversial questions are involved in this field:

1.    Does language shape culture or vice versa?
2.    What influence does language have on perception and thought?
3.    How do language patterns relate to cultural patterns?

Neuro Linguistics

Neurolinguistics is the study of the neural mechanisms in the human brain that control the comprehension, production, and acquisition of language. As an interdisciplinary field, neurolinguistics draws methodology and theory from fields such as neuroscience, linguistics, cognitive science, neurobiology, communication disorders, neuropsychology, and computer science.

Much work in neurolinguistics is informed by models in psycholinguistics and theoretical linguistics, and is focused on investigating how the brain can implement the processes that theoretical and psycholinguistics propose are necessary in producing and comprehending language. 

Neurolinguists study the physiological mechanisms by which the brain processes information related to language, and evaluate linguistic and psycholinguistic theories, using aphasiology, brain imaging, electrophysiology, and computer modeling.

Applied Linguistics

The use of language-related research in a wide variety of fields, including language acquisition, language teaching, literary studies, gender studies, speech therapy, discourse analysis, censorship, workplace communication, media studies, translation studies, and lexicography etc. Some of the questions that applied linguists ask include:
1.    How can languages best be learnt and taught?
2.    What social factors affect language learning?
3.    How can technology be used to contribute to the effectiveness of language teaching/learning?
4.    What are the related problems associated with language disorders? How can these be prevented?

Applied linguistics in the wider sense borders on other disciplines, e.g. sociology, anthropology, psychology, computational linguistics, stylistics etc.


Description & Prescription

Descriptive linguistics is the study of the description of the internal phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures of languages at given points in time without reference to their histories or to one another. In the study of language, description, or descriptive linguistics, is the work of objectively analyzing and describing how language is spoken by a group of people in a speech community. All scholarly research in linguistics is descriptive; like all other sciences, its aim is to observe the linguistic world as it is, without the bias of preconceived ideas about how it ought to be.

Prescriptive linguistics is an account of how a language should be used instead of how it is actually used; a prescription for the `correct' phonology and morphology and syntax and semantics.

Synchrony & Diachrony

The distinction synchrony and diachrony refers to the difference in treating language from different points of view. When we take a synchronic point of view, we are looking at a language as we find it at a given period in time (this has also been called descriptive linguistics). The diachronic point of view, on the other hand, gives us the historical angle; we look at a language over a period of time along with changes that occurred in it.

Some scholars do not use the two approaches apart: 'It is a mistake to think of descriptive and historical linguistics as two separate compartments, each bit of information belonging exclusively in the one or in the other. There are certain matters at a given time and also in connection with linguistic change.' (Hockett)

On a closer look one realizes that without a good synchronic (descriptive) work, valid historical (diachronic) postulations are not possible; in other words, a good historical linguist needs to be a thorough descriptive scholar too.

The world has about 6912 languages, India (438), Nepal (126), Pakistan (72), Bhutan (24), and Bangladesh (39). These figures are not the only thing which tells us how important language is, without language we would have no conversation, no songs, no stories, no jokes, and no civilization. We would be just like intelligent monkeys.