Many students start college with no idea what linguistics is, and it’s possible they won’t even brush past it throughout their entire college career. Today, I’ll demystify and explain exactly what linguistics is and hopefully encourage you to at least take an introductory class! When I tell people that I'm doing a PhD in linguistics, there are three main responses that I hear:
- So, how many languages do you speak?
- Ooh, you must be obsessed with grammar!
- What is that exactly?
To reply to responses 1 and 2:
What linguistics is not:
Linguistics is not about learning as many languages as you can; there are many linguists who can only speak one or two languages. There isn't a requirement to learn multiple languages. However, it is true that many (though not all) of us linguists become interested in linguistics because we like learning languages and decide to take an introduction to linguistics course to find out what it's about.
Linguistics is also not about prescribing what grammar is “correct”. Rather, we describe language and its flexibility. If someone is a native speaker of a language, their grammar cannot be “wrong”. So Southern English, standard American English, African American Vernacular English, London English, Cockney English, etc. are all legitimate grammars with their own regular rules.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s reply to response 3!
So what is linguistics?
To put it simply, linguistics is the scientific study of language. Linguistics aims to understand how the language faculty of the mind works and to describe how language itself works. Linguists observe patterns within a language and across languages to try to understand what principles drive our brains’ comprehension and production of language.
There's a quote by Lynne Murphy that "asking a linguist how many languages s/he speaks is like asking a doctor how many diseases s/he has had". As linguists, languages (and language) are our objects of study. We learn to look at languages as data and recognize their patterns, just as doctors learn to recognize signs and symptoms of diseases. Whether they have had the disease before or not is irrelevant. Many people come to linguistics from other areas: math, computer science, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, and cognitive science, just to name a few popular related fields.
Linguistics spans a large number of subfields, each dealing with a different part of the language faculty.
Phonetics: the study of the acoustics and sounds of languages
A phonetician might, for example, look at how stress manifests in a language.
In English, the stressed word in a normal sentence is louder and higher-pitched: “ANna likes bananas.” If we ask a question though, it’s pronounced with a lower pitch: “ANna likes bananas?”
Phonology: the study of sound systems and how they pattern
For example, in English, there are many examples of t's in the middle of words that sound quite different from t's at the beginning or end of words. Listen to the t's in "toted" and you’ll hear that they don’t sound the same. The first t is pronounced with a puff of air (put your hand in front of your mouth to check this) but the second is not and it sounds like the d in “coded.” This sound is called a tap because your tongue taps the roof of your mouth briefly and it is very similar to the tapped r sound in languages like Spanish or Japanese (this leads to misperceptions of the English middle t as an r for speakers of these languages).
Syntax: the study of sentence structure
English and many western European languages have a phenomenon called “wh-movement.” wh-words are the question words who, which, what, where, when, why, and how. Think about the sentence “I eat an apple” as a possible response to the question “What do you eat?” The word what corresponds to apple, but it shows up at the beginning of the sentence.
In many languages, though, the wh-word corresponds to the same position as the word it refers to. For example, in Chinese you would say “I eat apple” in response to “You eat what?” We say then that in languages like English, wh-movement has occurred and the structure is: “What do you eat what?” A lot of other properties of a language are predicted by whether it has wh-movement or not, but we’ll have to leave those to another time!
Semantics: the study of meaning and formalizing it into a logical form
English and many western European languages have a phenomenon called “wh-movement.” wh-words are the question words who, which, what, where, when, why, and how. Think about the sentence “I eat an apple” as a possible response to the question “What do you eat?” The word what corresponds to apple, but it shows up at the beginning of the sentence. In many languages, though, the wh-word corresponds to the same position (called in-situ) as the word it refers to. For example, in Chinese you would say “I eat apple” in response to “You eat what?” We say then that in languages like English, wh-movement has occurred.
In English, the wh-word moves to the front of the sentence (why “do” appears in questions is another issue that I don’t have room to tackle here). A lot of other properties of a language are predicted by whether it has wh-movement or not, but we’ll have to leave those to another time
Psycholinguistics: the study of how language manifests in the brain
Psycholinguists carry out experiments to observe the reaction of the brain’s different areas to different stimuli, and they’ll try to relate the findings to the more abstract linguistic theories.
An example is tracking people’s eye movements when they read the sentence “The old man the boat.” This is known as a garden path sentence, because readers are led down a “false path.” The reader does a double take once s/he reaches “the”, having expected a verb to appear. The second time around, the reader realizes that “man” is a verb and then parses the sentence correctly. These garden path sentences provide insight into how sentence parsing occurs in the brain.
Sociolinguistics: the study of the intersection of language with society
Sociolinguists might look at attitudes toward different linguistic features and its relation to class, race, sex, etc. For example, one of the fathers of sociolinguistics, William Labov, carried out an experiment in New York City in which he visited three department stores—a low end one (S. Klein), a mid-end one (Macy’s), and a high-end one (Saks Fifth Avenue)—and inquired where a department was in order to prompt the answer “fourth floor.”
The higher end the store, the more likely the “r” was pronounced, and when asked to repeat, it was only Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s where the “r” became much more likely to be pronounced the second time around. The study also had implications for the ability in different communities to code switch to a prestige dialect.
Computational linguistics: the study of applying computer science to linguistics
Computational linguists might use programming to model linguistic structure or change or for practical applications, such as Natural Language Processing, which has implications both for figuring out and modeling how language acquisition works as well as for translation software.
Historical linguistics: the study of how languages change across time
Historical linguists may work in language-specific areas, carrying out what is called reconstruction. Just as evolutionary biologists compare features of related organisms to reconstruct their common ancestor, historical linguists do the same with related languages, under the important fact that languages change regularly.
As a simple example, f’s at the beginning of English words correspond to p’s at the beginning of Latin words if neither is borrowed from another language (father : pater, fish : pisces, pellis : felt, pes : foot). Using reconstructions, historical linguists will try to trace migration patterns and make inferences about the prehistoric culture, triangulating with results by geneticists, anthropologists, and archaeologists. Historical linguists might also look at what patterns exist in language change and seek to explain why these patterns exist.
Applied linguistics: the study of applying linguistics to real-life situations
An applied linguistic will likely work in fields such as such as language education, translation, or language policy. For example, an applied linguist may also carry out research in first and second language acquisition in order to figure out effective and efficient ways to teach language in school settings.
There are various other fields of linguistics but there’s only so much room in this post! As for what you can do with a linguistics degree? Plenty! But, that deserves a post all for itself!