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According to Dictionary.comlinguistics is defined as:

the science of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology,syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and historical linguistics.

So linguistics is a scientific study of language. You could break down the areas of language that linguistics covers into 3 main branches – sound, structure, meaning. (These 3 main branches are part of what linguistics proper includes. There is a whole section of linguistics called applied linguistics, which is where linguistics is married with one or more other fields of study to be utilised in real-world applications.)

Before I continue to break down the branches of linguistics, let’s talk about what is language, at least what linguists consider to be language. One definition used in an online university linguistics course is:

Language is the institution by which humans communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually-used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols.

So at its most basic, as far as linguists are concerned, language is a communication system used by humans. Now, let’s look at some of the terms used in that definition.

Arbitrary symbols – Language is essentially arbitrary. There is no reason as to why, in English, a table is called a table. There is nothing inherent in the real-world object that necessitates it being called a table. This is also the reason why other languages call the same object other things. The symbol used (in this case, a “word”, which is really a bunch of sounds put together) is arbitrary. We could change the word from table to ladding (a “word” that I just made up), and as long as all English speakers in the word agreed to use this word instead, there would be no miscommunication.

There are of course some exceptions to this arbitrariness. One of these exceptions is a group of words called onomatopoeia. These are words like “bzzz/buzz”, “moo”, “woof”, “meow”, etc. These words are not arbitrary because they are supposed to imitate the real-world sound. Though an interesting thing to note is that the onomatopoeic words used for the same sound differ across different languages. This, however, has more to do with how a native speaker of a particular language hears the sound, and what set of sounds are available in their language to use for reproduction.

Oral-auditory – The most common way that humans use language is through the oral-auditory channel. That is, we most commonly tend to use our mouths to speak (oral) and ears to listen (auditory). Of course many languages are written down. However, the spoken form has always come first in any language throughout human history. All the languages that are (or have ever been) written down were, at one point or another, solely spoken.

Habitually-used – Even though there can be thousands of words in a language’s vocabulary, there is still a finite number of words, or symbols. There are also a finite amount of ways that these symbols/words can be put together to make a meaningful utterance. So these symbols are habitually used. Yet despite this, a native speaker of a language can create a completely new and novel utterance that the listener has never heard before, and be completely understood.

For example, if I write, “The blue grass turned red in the neon green moonlight”, chances are you have never read that sentence before. But you recognize each word as I have used words that are part of the English vocabulary. In fact, I’ve used words that are fairly common and even an intermediate ESL speaker would probably know those words. Further, you understand the meaning of my sentence. You understand that I’m talking about grass that is initially blue in colour, turning red under the light of the moon. And you know that that light of the moon is neon green.

So now that we’ve defined language, and specifically defined it as something humans engage in, what about animals? Animals can and do communicate with each other. Their system of communication can be sounds (meaning they use the oral-auditory channel), relatively arbitrary, and even include quite a large set of symbols. Yet animal communicative systems aren’t as complex or expressive as human language. And especially, animals aren’t capable of creating novel utterances.

Most animal communication are conditioned responses. When a certain situation presents itself, an animal will usually communicate with a hard-wired response. According to some researchers, some animals are capable of voluntary responses. But even with this, all animal communication, as far as we know, is bound to the present moment. Animals cannot communicate about abstracts concepts like time.

Next week I will continue with What Is Linguistics. I know I wrote in the Introduction post that I will be publishing a lesson every Tuesday. My apologies that I was not able to this week. I have decided to revise this and publish every Wednesday. This will give me 2 days to write each lesson.

I hope you have enjoyed starting to learn about linguistics. Feel free to let me know in the comments what you think.

DH

References:

  1. “Linguistics”, Dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/linguistics
  2. “Animal language”, Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_language
  3. “MOOC: Linguistics 101 – Fundamentals”, The Virtual Linguistics Campus: http://linguistics.online.uni-marburg.de/
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