What is Linguistics?
Have you ever wondered why speakers of English are permitted to say White House but not House White, or why Southerners in the US say “pah” for pie? And even more strangely, consider the fact that in English the plural form of the singular noun monkey is monkeys, and yet the plural form of child is children. Why don’t we say monkren or childs? Why do French speakers pronounce ‘that’ as ‘zat?’ And how is it that children born and raised in small, isolated villages, who never receive formal schooling, can speak 2, 3, and sometimes more languages fluently and most American children only speak one? Why do the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ not exist in all languages? Why do languages which are more widely spoken around the globe, such as English or Spanish, have less complex grammatical systems than more obscure languages spoken by small tribal groups of people such as Tuyuca, which is spoken by less than a thousand people in Columbia? ₂ Why do all these differences exist and from where do they originate?
These are some of the questions which linguists spend their career exploring.
Although the study of language dates back to hundreds of years before the Common Era, certain aspects of language remain a mystery. And yet speaking and listening are the most natural tasks that human beings partake in throughout their lives. We begin this complex task as babes, barely able to feed ourselves, without any understanding of why we say what we do₁ regardless of social, ethnic, or geographical background. Most people do not give a second thought to how they speak their language.
Linguistics is a natural science which explores natural language. Linguists investigate language by observing, gathering, and analyzing how humans use language in the same way that a scientist uses scientific method to gather and analyze observable data. The study of language is many faceted thus there are several linguistic sub-fields. A large body of linguistic research is devoted to theory such as phonetics (the study of sounds), phonology (the study of how sounds are strung together), morphology (the formation of words), syntax (the structure of phrases), and semantics (the construct of meaning). Other fields of linguistic study are language acquisition (how one learns her native language as well as foreign languages), historical linguistics (finding the roots of and connection between languages), socio-linguistics which is focused on language in society, language change, language planning, and how social constructs influence language. Cognitive linguistics is the study of the relationship between the mind and language. Psycholinguistics is the study of how humans perform language.
The Nature of Language
How many languages are spoken in the world today? This question is not as easy to answer as you may think. If 100 different people are queried, they will very likely give 100 different responses. In the early twentieth century the count was unofficially at 1,000. By the end of the same century, the number rose to well over 2,000. Did new languages develop that rapidly? Well, not really. One reason for the number doubling is that linguists gained access to more people groups who had previously been too isolated geographically to reach. According to the experts, there are currently between 5,000 and 6,000 languages spoken around the globe. They are as different from each other as the human fingerprint. No two are alike. In fact, no two dialects of any given language are exactly alike. And yet all natural languages share certain properties, or characteristics which have provided linguists with a powerful handful of principles which apply to all languages thus opening the doors to our understanding the nature of language itself.
The concept of language is many faceted. This is due to the fact that it permeates every aspect of our lives. In very general terms one could describe language as a system of communication used to connect human beings to each other. Language is affected by geography, education, social norms, and the development of technology and is used by every human being on the face of the earth in some way or another.
How does language happen? It is largely agreed upon that all humans possess a biological system of language just as each person comes into this world fully equipped with a circulatory system. No one teaches her infant how to inhale through the nostrils or mouth, close the esophagus, open up the trachea, fill the lungs, keep the diaphragm descended, and slowly release it in order to let air slowly escape through the trachea and out of the mouth and/or nose. This biological system requires that each member executes its responsibility in the proper manner and at the right time so that the function of breathing can take place. Furthermore, it happens without much, if any thought on the part of the breather. And if there is a breakdown in any one member, breathing is inhibited. And thus is the biological system of language. Each of the components of the language system must join forces in order for a human being to communicate linguistically. The brain, the lungs, the lips, teeth, and tongue, to name a few members, must all be in synch in order to bring forth language. And how many of us think through the process each time we open our mouths? The process is so much a part of our biological and neurological make-up that most people would have a hard time describing exactly what happens during verbal communication. This process is referred to as the Speech Chain which is comprised of the following steps:
1. An idea is conceived in the brain.
2. The words needed to express the thought are extracted from the lexicon.
3. Sounds are mapped to words.
4. The words are arranged in an acceptable word order.
5. The articulatory tract delivers the sounds.
6. They reach the listener.
7. The listener decodes the sounds and maps them on to meanings which are found in his lexicon.
8. The listener understands the thought.
When any aspect of this process is inhibited, the message can become ambiguous or misunderstood. When this process goes smoothly, we have good communication.
This biological language system distinguishes humans from animals. Animals do communicate, but mainly through signals such as sounds and gestures. And Polly can tell you she wants a cracker but isn’t able to remind you to spread it with peanut butter and bring a ginger ale on the side. Scientists have not yet been able to show that animals have the capacity to expound upon what happens to them after death, or what they think about the quality of their water. They do not possess the ability to communicate with any type of verb inflection stating what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future, other than signal danger in the immediate future. A German shepherd may signal his master with a specific bark which warns of eminent danger, but he cannot explain what that danger is or how to escape it. So what is this basic difference between animal communication and human language? Grammar.
What is a grammar?
All natural languages have a grammar. And everyone who speaks a language has a grammar of that language stored in her brain, regardless of linguistic background or education. A grammar is a mental representation of the rules which govern any given language. These ‘rules’ do not distinguish between what is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, but provide a structure, a scaffolding upon which to build the grammatical structure. Certain rules pertain to all languages (universal principles) and others are specific to the language being spoken. Linguists talk about two types of grammars: a descriptive grammar and a prescriptive grammar.
A descriptive grammar describes the mental rules of a language which govern linguistic behavior that can be observed. It does not describe what is right or wrong; it describes what is. As a linguist observes how a group of people speak their language, he or she will be able to understand which rules are specific to that language.
Once a group of speakers has established what their language allows and does not allow, usually over a lengthy period of time, these speakers gain a sense of what is correct or grammatical, and what is not.3 Thus a prescriptive grammar is developed, which will mainly be used in teaching these grammatical forms to new speakers (children and non-natives).
Of course, all languages change over time through the restructuring of grammar by new generations, by contact with other languages, and by the addition and loss of words due to the fact that the world is constantly changing. Thus, descriptive and prescriptive grammars undergo change. In the 21st century it is un-prescribed to say, “I haven’t never seen that.” English speakers are taught that double negatives are an incorrect and unacceptable form of speech. However if enough people begin to talk this way, it will become observable. Once this form is established as ‘acceptable,’ it becomes part of the descriptive grammar. Once it is brought into the language as acceptable, it becomes part of the prescriptive grammar and will be included in schoolroom grammar classes. Hard to imagine? Consider the fact that double negatives were not only acceptable in Old English as part of the descriptive grammar, but were actually prescribed!
When you think about someone who is ‘competent,’ you imagine this person as possessing the knowledge needed to carry out a function or task. Thus, a linguistically competent person has all the knowledge necessary to discern what is acceptable and unacceptable in his or her language. Most of what we know about our own language is subconscious. This covert knowledge that each one of possesses is also referred to as linguistic competence.
A grammar is constructed with information about each aspect of language. This includes the knowledge of what belongs in one’s phonemic (sound) inventory and what does not. When a French speaker converses with someone who uses aspirated stops at the beginning of a word, she knows instinctively that this person is a foreigner since aspirated stops do not exist in French.
A native speaker also knows where sounds are permitted in syllables. An English speaker will never name his dog Fkido since ‘fk’ cannot come at the beginning of a syllable.
Stress patterns in words are also part of one’s linguistic knowledge. An English speaker understands the difference in meaning between:
cón.vict (a noun) vs. con.víct (a verb).
Mandarin Chinese speakers can immediately tell if they are conversing with a non-native speaker if the tone of a word is incorrect. The syllable ‘ta’ can have several totally distinct meanings depending on tone.
‘to lift’ ‘to shave’
Native speakers have knowledge of how words may be put together. Even very young Italian speakers know which verb endings must be used based on the person and number of the subject. A French native speaker knows that, although ‘ment’ makes an adverb out of most adjectives, that it doesn’t work for certain words.
lente + ment → lentement vite + ment → *vitement
‘slow’ (fem) ADV ‘slowly’ ‘fast’ ADV *fastly
Native speakers are able to quickly judge between a grammatical and ungrammatical phrasal structure. An English speaker knows that the sentences in (5) are well formed whereas the sentences in (6) are not.
Superman and Lois are good friends.
Lois knows that Superman is Kent Clark.
* Superman are good friends and Lois.
* Lois knows who Superman is Kent Clark.
English speakers adhere to the covert rule that only one noun phrase can be the subject of a sentence.
Clark Kent loves Lois.
*Clark Kent Superman love Lois.
If a speaker wants to embellish a sentence, she knows she can add prepositional phrases
Mark took a shower at his mother’s house, early this morning, before anyone woke up.
but not nouns alone…..
*Mark took a shower at his mother’s house back yard.
In terms of word meanings, speakers of every language know which concepts are represented by which words and when meaning is derived by the sound of the word. (onomatopoeia)
No native English speaker under the age of 50 will have any problem discerning the different meanings of the word ‘sweet’ in (10).
That girl is sweet. ‘nice’
That candy is sweet. ‘sugary’
That Chevy is sweet. ‘nice looking’
A speaker’s competence is displayed by how she uses her language. If she utters grammatical structures, she is considered linguistically competent. However, if she utters ungrammatical structures due to a flaw in her mental representation of that grammar, she is incompetent linguistically. The manner in which a speaker uses linguistic knowledge is referred to as linguistic performance.
1 This statement assumes the absence of communication disorders.
2 Speakers of Tuyuca possess eight forms of the imperative (giving an order) whereas in English only one exists.
3 Unacceptable or ungrammatical examples are preceded by an asterisk.
Dixon, R.M.W., 2010. Basic Linguistic Theory. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford Press.