Spec Tech: What is Linguistics, Anyway?

Since linguistics topics are bound to keep popping up here during Spec Tech Thursdays, I thought I’d give a quick run-down of the field of linguistics and its component parts.  Hopefully this will give you a taste of how linguists view human language, and at the same time establish a shared vocabulary for future posts on linguistic topics.

Let’s look at the field of linguistics in what is perhaps the most traditional way: an examination of the various subfields of the discipline, organized from those that study the smallest features of human language to those that study the largest.

Phonetics is the study of the production and perception of speech sounds at the nitty-grittiest (nittiest-gritty? nittiest-grittiest?) level: where is the tip of the tongue during that sound, are the vocal folds vibrating, where is air flowing to and from, etc.  On the perception side, let us consider a classic example: Japanese speakers have a notoriously difficult time with the English distinction between /l/ and /r/.  From perception studies, we’ve learned that Japanese speakers just don’t pay attention to a certain part of the speech signal (for those interested, the third formant), which is where the distinct between /l/ and /r/ lies.

Phonology is the study of how speech sounds pattern within a given language.  To understand what this patterning looks like, let’s consider an example.  In English, we write our plural morpheme “-s” is basically two ways: “-s” or “-es”.  But there are actually three ways that this morpheme is pronounced; consider the differences in words such as “bushes” (-uz) “cats” (-s) and “dogs” (-z).  If these three variants of the plural morpheme were assigned to root nouns at random, learning English would be quite a chore.  Fortunately, though, phonology lets us predict, based on how a word ends, which form the plural morpheme will take.  So predictable is this pattern that some of you are probably still thinking that you don’t pronounce the plural differently in the three example words I mentioned above—phonology happens at a very basic level of speech production and perception, and native speakers of a language often don’t even see the pattern until it’s pointed out to them (and sometimes, not even then).

Morphology studies the smallest units of meaning in language, dubbed morphemes.  Morphemes can be whole words: a word like “cat”, after all, can’t be broken down any farther.  But the field of morphology is most interested in how the little bits of meaning which aren’t full words get used.  In English, our morphological options are somewhat limited.  We have the plural “-s” that we just discussed, for example, which can’t stand as a word on its own.  Other languages, though, do a lot more with morphology.  Take Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec Empire which still has over one million speakers in Mexico today.  If I wanted to say, in Nahuatl, “I will kill pigs for you,” it would come out as just one word: nimitspitsomikitis (ni-mits-pitso-miki-ti-s).  There are bits in there for the subject, the object, the tense, the pig, the verb (in this case, “die”), a little morpheme that turns “die” into “cause to die” (i.e., “kill”), and even a bit that says that the causing of the pigs to die is for the benefit of someone else.  And verbs in Nahuatl can get even more complex.  For example, there is a category of morphemes called directionals, which indicate the location/direction at which the action takes place. Thus, an idea as complex as “I will go over there and kill pigs for you” is expressed as a single word.

Syntax examines how individual words are combined to form clauses and sentences.  In English, for example, we prefer subject-verb-object word order: “Mary chased the dog.”  But this is by no means universal.  Ancient Egyptian, for example, preferred verb-subject-object word order, yielding “Chased Mary the dog.”  Although all patterns of subject-verb-object ordering are found somewhere in the world, certain patterns (subject-verb-object and subject-object-verb) are much more common.

Semantics is the study of meaning.  Not the existential meaning of life, the universe, and everything, but the meaning of words.  Crucial to this idea of meaning is the formation of categories—how do you identify things as belonging to the category “dog” after having limited experience with dogs?  (And note that all of our experience with dogs is “limited” in the sense that no one has interacted with all of the members of the category “dog.”)  We only need a limited amount of experience to form these categories, and different languages often have wildly different categories.  In English, for example, we need to track gender to correctly use “he” and “she.”  In other languages, though, you might be tasked with tracking the humanity (human versus non-human), animacy (humans and animals versus trees and rocks), or even who is most topic at a given moment in a narrative.  And even gender, which might seem a simple matter, can get complex: some Bantu languages (spoken in Africa) have upwards of ten “genders” which are used to code who is doing what to whom.

Pragmatics, finally, is also related to meaning, but at a higher level.  Here, linguists are interested in how language gets used socially.  How is it, for example, that, “Brrr, it sure is cold in here with that window open” becomes, in the correct circumstances, a request to close a window rather than a statement of fact?

As the field of linguistics has grown over the past century or so, these traditional subfields have come to be complemented by a variety of additional areas of study, many of which don’t fit neatly into the schema of “smallest-to-biggest” we were using above.  A small and by no means exhaustive sampling of such subfields:

Computational Linguistics is, at its most broad, the use of computer tools for analyzing and understanding language.  More narrowly, compling is often understood as the analysis of large corpora (singular, corpus), which allows one to discover statistical patterns in language.  Your Google search and spam filter? Computational linguistics.

Historical Linguistics is the study of how languages change over time, how Latin turns into French and Spanish and Italian and Romanian and etc.  Historical linguists draw from all of the main subfields of linguistics in an effort to understand something about the prehistory of languages, and to understand the historical relationships between languages.

Neurolinguistics, as its name suggests, examines language in the brain, often through EEG (electroencephalogram) or fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).  Subjects in such a study might listen to some grammatical (“Mary chased the dog”) and ungrammatical (e.g., “Mary chased dog the”) sentences, while the equipment records the subject’s neurological responses.  This provides a window into what the brain is doing while it processes language.

And there we have it: a whirlwind tour of the field of linguistics!  If something’s not clear, or if you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to provide answers.


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