Thursday, 16 August 2012

In Defence of Language Study: What is Linguistics?

 A little blurb on Linguistics for those of you wondering what on earth it is that I study...

Most people who have heard of Linguistics before know that it has something to do with languages. But beyond that, the general understanding of the subject becomes somewhat murky. As a relatively "new" and somewhat specialised subject, there is a lot of confusion around what it is all about and what linguists are actually interested in. The purpose of this post is to share a rough outline of what Linguistics is really about, at least in the understanding I have developed after studying it for the last five years.

What is Linguistics:
Traditionally we refer to it as "the science of language" but that is a slightly confusing and not very enlightening description. It is a science, but not a "hard science", and therefore belongs to the Humanities or Arts. Some might prefer to call it a Human Science, or even a Social Science, but not even these boxes are quite where it fits. It draws inspiration from a range of fields including: language teaching, literature studies, the classics, maths, the social sciences, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, geography, computer science, neuroscience, anatomy, medicine, acoustics, biology, genetics...the list could go on. In a way, it is one of the truly multi-disciplinary subjects. And yet it requires its own specialisation and jargon.

What Linguistics is not:
There are two common misconceptions regarding what Linguistics is about. Firstly, Linguistics is not about learning lots of languages. It is not about learning any languages. It is about understanding the phenomenon that is Language. A linguist does not need to be fluent in many languages. A person who is so would more appropriately be referred to as a Language Scholar, Language Expert or a Polyglot. Some linguists are polyglots. Some polyglots are linguists. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor mutually inclusive. Knowing many languages - especially different kinds of languages - will naturally contribute to understanding more about Language. But it is not a pre-requisite. If you are, like me, not a natural polyglot (you don't pick up languages easily or naturally) you can still do well in linguistics. Of course, as linguists, we deal with many different languages in trying to grapple with the phenomenon of Language. And to be a good linguist, it helps if you have had lessons in different languages and know things about the rules of their grammar. But learning about a language and its rules is not the same as being fluent in that language. And while fluency in many languages is preferable, it's not necessary. 

The second misconception is that Linguistics is about "rules of grammar" - grammatical and linguistic "correctness". Most linguists are not "grammar police". Our job is not to go around telling people how to speak and why they are speaking wrong. It is not to bemoan the decline in grammatical/language aptitude of our current generation, to preserve the perfection that is a language and to go around correcting and teaching those that can't speak properly. And even if we were interested in that, it is most definitely not about neat writing, correct spelling and punctuation. Writing, spelling and punctuation (in particular) are not Language. They are a means of expressing language but are largely human constructs. There are, of course, reasons why uniformity in these areas is important and useful to society (especially for clarity of expression and avoiding misunderstandings) but that is not the interest of the linguist.

The linguist is interested primarily in Language. That is our concern. What is Language and how does it work? That probably sums up the best what Linguistics is about.

Linguistics is the study of how language works

If we take the statement above as our starting point, all the sub-fields that make up the science of Linguistics fall nicely into place. Linguistics needs to be thought of as a super-discipline: an over-arching term that covers a whole range of sub-fields, some of which are and operate very differently from each other. In the same way the (hard) sciences may be divided up into chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology etc. so does Linguistics have many sub-fields. Unlike experts in the hard sciences, linguists are generally expected to have expertise in a few different (even seemingly unrelated) sub-fields of Linguistics. In part this is because it is still a relatively new discipline (in its current form, that is) and hasn't reached the level of specialisation some of the hard sciences have, and in part because the various disciplines, though different and able to be treated in isolation, do in fact influence each other.

So what are these sub-disciplines? Well they all address the question of how the phenomenon that is language works. But they do so in different ways.  

Sociolinguistics looks at how language works in society. It addresses issues such as dialect variation, identity, and bilingualism within communities, at the level of small social groups and at national level. It examines the role and interaction of different languages within a society and how power-relations are played out through those languages.

Psycholinguistics looks at how language works in the human mind. How are individual languages acquired and learnt by children and adults? How are mental thoughts converted into spoken language and how is spoken language understood and de-constructed back into mental thoughts by those who hear or read it? The related field of Neurolinguistics looks at how language is physically processed by the brain. Which parts of the brain are responsible for processing language, what kinds of language formations are more difficult for the brain to process and why, and how are brain defects related to language defects?

Historical Linguistics looks at how languages are related to one another. What "genetic" connections are there between the different languages of the world and how and why do languages change over time (why do dialects, and eventually different languages, develop)? It looks at trying to understand, through reconstruction, rules of sound and grammatical change within the history of language groups.

Then there is a group of sub-fields within linguistics that may be grouped together under the heading Formal Linguistics. These fields look at how Language works internally by analysing the different building blocks that make up Language. These sub-fields, in particular, can use very formal methods derived from mathematics and logic. Phonetics and Phonology look at the underlying sounds used by humans to string together words and sentences. They examine particular rules that govern how these sounds are combined to derive different meanings. Semantics and Pragmatics look at the meaning behind individual words, how these words are combined to convey larger amounts of information, and how meaning is related and conveyed by different contexts. Morphology looks at how individual words are formed in different languages and made more precise by combining root meanings with semantically meaningful or grammatical forms like prefixes and suffixes. Syntax examines sentence structure and the way words of different types (nouns, verbs, adjectives, function words etc.) are combined according to particular rules in different languages to convey meaning.

The last two fields make up what you may more generally know as "grammar". But again, what we are interested in as linguists is not whether grammar is used "correctly" or not, so much as what the "natural" rules underlying the grammars of different languages are, why they work like that and why there are differences in different languages.

I've tried to keep this description simple, but it is hard to convey accurately what Linguistics is about without getting into technical terms. This, in a nutshell, sums up the basic ideas behind Linguistics and the focus of the different sub-fields. It is not an exhaustive description, and perhaps not even fully accurate. But the idea was to convey the gist of it.

Many of these fields are still in early stages of development and there is a lot of contention and debate within each field. Although language is something every human being is familiar with, it is also abstract and intangible; especially when one is trying to work out how language works in the mind or how the internal structure of a language is built up. No one can physically see or measure these things and so we are working with many theories and conjectures. Like with other sciences that deal with the intangible, it means there are disputes. But we are not simply grasping at straws. We use scientific methods to test our theories and have some evidence for their correctness. But we still have a long way to go.

And that, in part, is why I study Linguistics. There is still so much to learn about how language works. This amazing ability which we use almost every day of our lives and which almost every linguist will tell you is unique to humans is so very little understood. In the same way a biologist studies a life form to try and learn better what beautiful creatures exist in our world and what makes up this complex thing called life; in the same way an astronomer studies cosmic phenomena to better understand what is out there in the universe, and perhaps through that seeks for understanding in how our universe is made up; so the linguist wishes to study this beautiful and complex ability called Language.

Not all linguistics would feel the same, but for me, as a Christian who believes language was created and built into our genetic make-up by God, as a means of communicating with one another and hence enriching our lives, I can think of few better things to do than study this amazing ability with which he has blessed us. And in understanding these things, to gain a better appreciation for the great God whose imagination and power brought such a great phenomenon to be.

So that is what Linguistics is all about and why I study it. I hope it has shed some light on what I spend my time doing. I plan a follow-up post looking into more detail about why Linguistics is important to me, the Descriptive versus Prescriptive debate (which relates to the issue of grammatical correctness) and what that means to me as a Christian.

1 comment:

The Happy Islander said...

Hi, Ajjie!

Linguistics is pretty neat. I've not studied much of it, just one class, but I enjoyed it. :) Except for the annoying research paper I had to write...

I took a Spanish linguistics class some time ago (after I had been studying Spanish for a number of years). It was basically an overview linguistics class--all as it related to the Spanish language--and our professor spoke mostly in Spanish, except when a need for clarity called for English.

So it's funny, but I don't know the vocabulary of linguistics very well in English... we talked about fonemas and lenguas and lenguajes and such... it was fun learning more about the history of the language, too. :)