Thursday, 3 March 2011

What is Linguistics?

Language is central to our human nature, and linguistics is the systematic study of human language. Although on the face of it there is huge variation among the world's languages, linguists not only describe the diverse characteristics of individual languages but also seek to discover the deeper properties which all languages share. These common properties may give us an insight into the structure of the human mind.

Part of the appeal of linguistics is that it draws on methods and knowledge from an unusually wide range of scholarship and transcends the usual subject boundaries. For instance, the study of meaning draws on work by philosophers, whereas the part of our course concentrating on the sounds of speech takes place in our Phonetics Laboratory. Here computers are used to display and analyse the speech signal using methods from physics and engineering. This variety is what makes linguistics fascinating: at one moment you might be poring over a medieval text for evidence of how the grammar of a language has changed, and the next, learning about how the larynx creates sound energy for speech.

The flexibility of language as a tool for communication depends on combining smaller elements into larger structures. Language does this at several 'levels', and the description of languages involves different levels of analysis. Syntax describes the combination of words to form sentences; morphology describes the building of words from components such as roots and suffixes; and phonology identifies the sound-units of a language and describes aspects of their combination. These levels of language constitute a system for associating structures with meaning, and the study of meaning in language belongs to the domain of semantics. Phonetics is concerned with how people speak and understand speech, and with speech sounds themselves.

Other linguistic sub-disciplines are directed towards language in action. Pragmatics deals with the ways in which the meaning of an utterance depends on the context of its use. Sociolinguistics studies the relation between language and all aspects of society, from the way social groups mark themselves linguistically, to the dynamics of conversations. Psycholinguistics is concerned with how language is represented and processed in the mind, and how it is acquired. Historical linguistics reconstructs earlier forms of a language, and seeks general trends in the ways languages change; explanations for changes may draw on social and psychological aspects of language use.

The investigation of language has a long history, which is a topic of study in its own right, and it draws on techniques and knowledge from disciplines as diverse as philosophy, physics, biology, psychology, and sociology. For many people part of the attraction of linguistics is that it transcends disciplinary boundaries, including notably the traditional boundary between the arts and sciences.

Source: University of Cambridge.