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Each human language is a complex of knowledge and abilities enabling speakers of the language to communicate with each other, to express ideas, hypotheses, emotions, desires, and all the other things that need expressing. Linguistics is the study of these knowledge systems in all their aspects: how is such a knowledge system structured, how is it acquired, how is it used in the production and comprehension of messages, how does it change over time? Linguists consequently are concerned with a number of particular questions about the nature of language. What properties do all human languages have in common? How do languages differ, and to what extent are the differences systematic, i.e. can we find patterns in the differences? How do children acquire such complete knowledge of a language in such a short time? What are the ways in which languages can change over time, and are there limitations to how languages change? What is the nature of the cognitive processes that come into play when we produce and understand language?

Linguistics is the study of language - how it is put together and how it functions. Various building blocks of different types and sizes are combined to make up a language. Sounds are brought together and sometimes when this happens; they change their form and do interesting things. Words are arranged in a certain order, and sometimes the beginnings and endings of the words are changed to adjust the meaning. Then the meaning itself can be affected by the arrangement of words and by the knowledge of the speaker about what the hearer will understand. Linguistics is the study of all of this. There are various branches of linguistics which are given their own name, some of which are described below. Linguists are people who study linguistics. Very simply stated, Linguistics is the scientific study of language. What this means is that linguists try to understand the patterns in language by looking at aspects such as the structure of language, language acquisition and learning, and the relationship between language and culture. In other words, linguists try to understand how language works, how we use language, and what different languages have in common.
While the definition of linguistics might seem clear, there are still many misconceptions regarding linguistics. One of the biggest misconceptions is that all linguists speak many languages. But, while some linguists do speak more than one language, it is not a prerequisite for becoming a linguist. Some linguists spend their entire lives studying only one language.

Structure of Linguistics

The part of linguistics that is concerned with the structure of language is divided into a number of subfields:


The study of speech sounds in their physical aspects


The study of speech sounds in their cognitive aspects


The study of the formation of words


The study of the formation of sentences


The study of meaning

Pragmatics The study of language use

Aside from language structure, other perspectives on language are represented in specialized or interdisciplinary branches:

  1. Historical Linguistics
  2. Sociolinguistics
  3. Psycholinguistics
  4. Ethnolinguistics (or Anthropological Linguistics)
  5. Dialectology
  6. Computational Linguistics


Because language is such a central feature of being a human, Linguistics has intellectual connections and overlaps with many other disciplines in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Some of the closest connections are with Philosophy, Literature, Language Pedagogy, Psychology, Sociology, Physics (acoustics), Biology (anatomy, neuroscience), Computer Science, Computer Engineering, Health Sciences (Aphasia, Speech Therapy).

Historical Linguistics

Discourse analysis looks at bigger chunks of language - texts, conversations, stories, speeches, etc. Different types of these use language differently and there can even be differences in how a language is used based on the genre. For example, "Once upon a time" is an appropriate start to a fairy tale, but not to a news story on the evening news. Discourse features can also show important principles of organization such as which players in a story have key roles and which just have bit parts.

Historical Linguistics is the study of how languages have changed over time. Some changes happen because of slow (maybe incremental) changes within the language, such as in pronunciation or in the meaning of a word. Other changes happen because of contact with speakers of other languages. The most well know example of this is "borrowing," but language contact can cause other types of change as well. It can be interesting to compare phonology, syntax and word lists of similar or geographically close languages to see how similar they are. Some linguists then use this information to figure out the past of the languages, such as when two languages split from each other. Combined with other known facts about the speakers of the language, it can lead to important discoveries about their history.

Variation and Universality

The general object of any linguistic description is a certain language. Naturally, no single scientific investigation can hope to grasp a language in its entirety. Even if the topic is restricted to a very specific problem of the language system, e.g. the structure of the relative clause, the object language still has to be delimited by reference to the dimensions of variation of language use (diachronic, diatopic, diastratic, diphasic).

Here the task of the linguist is Janus-headed:  Delimit the variety to be described explicitly against everything else. For instance, if all your data comes from one dialect of the language, then that dialect, and not the entire language, is the object of your study.  See to it that the remaining variation allowed for by your definition and actually occurring in the variety you are describing is adequately represented in your data. The term linguistic variation (or simply variation) refers to regional, social, or contextual differences in the ways that a particular language is used. Variation between languages, dialects, and speakers is known as interspace variation. Variation within the language of a single speaker is called intra speaker variation. Since the rise of sociolinguistics in the 1960s, interest in linguistic variation (also called linguistic variability) has developed rapidly. R.L. Trask notes that "variation, far from being peripheral and inconsequential, is a vital part of ordinary linguistic behavior" (Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics, 2007). The formal study of variation is known as variations (socio) linguistics.
All aspects of language (including phonemes, morphemes, syntactic structures, and meanings) are subject to variation. Language Variation or Dialectal Variation refers to changes in language due to various influences. These include social, geographic, and individual and group factors. This is the variety of language or dialect that is used for formal, official and education purposes. It is also used as an instrument for mass education and communication causing it to acquire greater prestige and uniformity. (Creoles have been observed to lack uniformity as a result of not being standardized.) Most Caribbean countries have a European language as its standard variety for formal, official purposes and a Creole language for informal communication amongst native, family and friends. The notable exception is Haiti where the French Creole was made an official language alongside French.


Some of these connections are made within linguistics itself. For instance, the Penn linguistics department includes specialists in sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, historical linguistics and computational linguistics. In other cases, the work may be carried out within another field, or at least another department -- neurology, psychology, computer science, philosophy, anthropology, history -- perhaps in consultation with a card-carrying linguist.

Linguistics has many more or less obvious connections with other disciplines, some of which we've just mentioned. Psychologists study how language is learned and used. Anthropologists and sociologists examine the role of language in culture and society. Philosophers are interested in the nature of sense and reference. Computer scientists try to develop artificial models of the structures and processes involved in language use. Physiologists want to understand how language is produced and perceived by the brain, mouth and ear. Criminologists and literary scholars face the problem of determining the authorship of a particular spoken or written document.

Branches of Linguistics

The main branches of linguistics are:

  • Historical linguistics
  • Geographical linguistics
  • Descriptive linguistics
  • Comparative and contrastive linguistics
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Sociolinguistics
  • Ethnolinguistics
  • Syntactics/Grammar
  • Semantics
  • Pragmatics
  • Dialectology
  • Morphology
  • Phonetics
  • Phonemics
  • Morphophonology
  • Lexicology
  • Lexicography
  • Translation theory
  • Etymology
  • Stylistics
  • Computational linguistics
  • Linguistic philosophy
  • Philosophy of language (not the same as linguistic philosophy but the bigger set).
  • Zoolinguistics
  • Text lingustics

Prospective and retrospective linguistics (the latter is historical linguistics. Traditionally semiotics of which linguistics is technically speaking a study of one particular code - language consists of syntactic, semantics and pragmatics.

Applied Linguistics

Over the intervening years, the foci of attention have continued to broaden. Today the governing board of AILA describes applied linguistics 'as a means to help solve specific problems in society…applied linguistics focuses on the numerous and complex areas in society in which language plays a role.' * There appears to be consensus that the goal is to apply the findings and the techniques from research in linguistics and related disciplines to solve practical problems. To an observer, the most notable change in applied linguistics has been its rapid growth as an interdisciplinary field. In addition to foreign language teaching and machine translation, a partial sampling of issues considered central to the field of applied linguistics today includes topics such as language for special purposes (e.g. language and communication problems related to aviation, language disorders, law, medicine, science), language policy and planning, and language and literacy issues. For example, following the adoption of English as the working language for all international flight communication by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), some applied linguists concerned themselves with understanding the kinds of linguistic problems that occur when pilots or flight engineers from varying backgrounds communicate using a nonnative language and how to better train them to communicate in English more effectively. Applied Linguistics is concerned with practical issues involving language in the life of the community. The most important of these is the learning of second or foreign languages. Others include language policy, multilingualism, language education, the preservation and revival of endangered languages, and the assessment and treatment of language difficulties.

Other areas of interest include professional communication, for example, between doctors and their patients, between lawyers and their clients and in courtrooms, as well as other areas of institutional and cross-cultural communication ranging from the boardroom to the routines on an answer phone. Linguistics and Applied Linguistics is a challenging and stimulating discipline, offering many opportunities for original work. Some applied linguists are concerned with helping planners and legislators in countries develop and implement a language policy (e.g. planners are working in South Africa to specify and to further develop roles in education and government not only for English and Afrikaans but also for the other nine indigenous languages) or in helping groups develop scripts, materials, and literacy programs for previously unwritten languages (e.g. for many of the 850+ indigenous languages of Papua New Guinea). Other applied linguists have been concerned with developing the most effective programs possible to help adult newcomers to the United States or other countries, many of whom have limited if any prior education, develop literacy in the languages which they will need for survival and for occupational purposes. Other topics currently of concern to applied linguists are the broad issue of the optimal role of the mother tongue in the education of culturally and linguistically diverse students, the language of persuasion and politics, developing effective tools and programs for interpretation and translation, and language testing and evaluation.