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Scientific study of human language

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language, meaning that it is a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise study of language. Linguistics encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modelling them.

The traditional areas of linguistic analysis include phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Each of these areas roughly corresponds to phenomena found in human linguistic systems: sounds (and gesture, in the case of signed languages), minimal units (phonemes, words, morphemes), phrases and sentences, and meaning and its use.

Linguistics studies these phenomena in diverse ways and from various perspectives. Theoretical linguistics (including traditional descriptive linguistics) is concerned with building models of these systems, their parts (ontologies), and their combinatorics. Psycholinguistics builds theories of the processing and production of all these phenomena. These phenomena may be studied synchronically or diachronically (through history), in monolinguals or polyglots, in children or adults, as they are acquired or statically, as abstract objects or as embodied cognitive structures, using texts (corpora) or through experimental elicitation, by gathering data mechanically, through fieldwork, or through introspective judgment tasks. Computational linguistics implements theoretical constructs to parse or produce natural language or homologues. Neurolinguistics investigates linguistic phenomena by experiments on actual brain responses involving linguistic stimuli.

Linguistics is related to philosophy of language, stylistics and rhetorics, semiotics, lexicography, and translation.

Major subdisciplines
Historical linguistics

Historical linguistics is the study of language changes in history, particularly with regard to a specific language or a group of languages. Western trends in historical linguistics date back to roughly the late 18th century, when the discipline grew out of philology (the study of ancient texts and antique documents).

Historical linguistics emerged as one of the first few sub-disciplines in the field, and was most widely practiced during the late 19th century. Despite a shift in focus in the twentieth century towards formalism and generative grammar, which studies the universal properties of language, historical research today still remains a significant field of linguistic inquiry. Subfields of the discipline include language change and grammaticalisation.

Historical linguistics studies language change either diachronically (through a comparison of different time periods in the past and present) or in a synchronic manner (by observing developments between different variations that exist within the current linguistic stage of a language).

At first, historical linguistics served as the cornerstone of comparative linguistics, which involves a study of the relationship between different languages. During this time, scholars of historical linguistics were only concerned with creating different categories of language families, and reconstructing prehistoric proto languages by using the comparative method and the method of internal reconstruction. Internal reconstruction is the method by which an element that contains a certain meaning is re-used in different contexts or environments where there is a variation in either sound or analogy.

The reason for this had been to describe well-known Indo-European languages, many of which used to have long written histories. Scholars of historical linguistics also studied Uralic languages, another European language family for which very little written material existed back then. After this, there was significant work that followed on the corpora of other languages too, such as that of the Austronesian languages as well as of Native American language families.

The above approach of comparativism in linguistics is now, however, only a small part of the much broader discipline called historical linguistics. The comparative study of specific Indo-European languages is considered a highly specialised field today, while comparative research is carried out over the subsequent internal developments in a language. In particular, it is carried out over the development of modern standard varieties of languages, or over the development of a language from its standardised form to its varieties.

For instance, some scholars also undertook a study attempting to establish super-families, linking, for example, Indo-European, Uralic, and other language families to Nostratic. While these attempts are still not widely accepted as credible methods, they provide necessary information to establish relatedness in language change, something that is not easily available as the depth of time increases. The time-depth of linguistic methods is generally limited, due to the occurrence of chance word resemblances and variations between language groups, but a limit of around 10,000 years is often assumed for the functional purpose of conducting research. Difficulty also exists in the dating of various proto languages. Even though several methods are available, only approximate results can be obtained in terms of arriving at dates for these languages.

Today, with a subsequent re-development of grammatical studies, historical linguistics studies the change in language on a relational basis between dialect to dialect during one period, as well as between those in the past and the present period, and looks at evolution and shifts taking place morphologically, syntactically, as well as phonetically.

Syntax and morphology

Syntax and morphology are branches of linguistics concerned with the order and structure of meaningful linguistic units such as words and morphemes. Syntacticians study the rules and constraints that govern how speakers of a language can organize words into sentences. Morphologists study similar rules for the order of morphemes—sub-word units such as prefixes and suffixes—and how they may be combined to form words.

While words, along with clitics, are generally accepted as being the smallest units of syntax, in most languages, if not all, many words can be related to other words by rules that collectively describe the grammar for that language. For example, English speakers recognize that the words dog and dogs are closely related, differentiated only by the plurality morpheme "-s", only found bound to noun phrases. Speakers of English, a fusional language, recognize these relations from their innate knowledge of English's rules of word formation. They infer intuitively that dog is to dogs as cat is to cats; and, in similar fashion, dog is to dog catcher as dish is to dishwasher. By contrast, Classical Chinese has very little morphology, using almost exclusively unbound morphemes ("free" morphemes) and depending on word order to convey meaning. (Most words in modern Standard Chinese ["Mandarin"], however, are compounds and most roots are bound.) These are understood as grammars that represent the morphology of the language. The rules understood by a speaker reflect specific patterns or regularities in the way words are formed from smaller units in the language they are using, and how those smaller units interact in speech. In this way, morphology is the branch of linguistics that studies patterns of word formation within and across languages and attempts to formulate rules that model the knowledge of the speakers of those languages.

Phonological and orthographic modifications between a base word and its origin may be partial to literacy skills. Studies have indicated that the presence of modification in phonology and orthography makes morphologically complex words harder to understand and that the absence of modification between a base word and its origin makes morphologically complex words easier to understand. Morphologically complex words are easier to comprehend when they include a base word.

Polysynthetic languages, such as Chukchi, have words composed of many morphemes. The Chukchi word "təmeyŋəlevtpəγtərkən", for example, meaning "I have a fierce headache", is composed of eight morphemes t-ə-meyŋ-ə-levt-pəγt-ə-rkən that may be glossed. The morphology of such languages allows for each consonant and vowel to be understood as morphemes, while the grammar of the language indicates the usage and understanding of each morpheme.

The discipline that deals specifically with the sound changes occurring within morphemes is morphophonology.

Semantics and pragmatics

Semantics and pragmatics are branches of linguistics concerned with meaning. These subfields have traditionally been divided according to aspects of meaning thought to arise from the grammar versus linguistic and social context. Semantics in this conception is concerned with grammatical and lexical meanings and pragmatics concerned with meaning in context. The framework of formal semantics studies the denotations of sentences and the way they are composed from the meanings of their constituent expressions. Formal semantics draws heavily on philosophy of language and uses formal tools from logic and computer science. Cognitive semantics ties linguistic meaning to general aspects of cognition, drawing on ideas from cognitive science such as prototype theory.

Pragmatics encompasses phenomena such as speech acts, implicature, and talk in interaction. Unlike semantics, which examines meaning that is conventional or "coded" in a given language, pragmatics studies how the transmission of meaning depends not only on structural and linguistic knowledge (grammar, lexicon, etc.) of the speaker and listener but also on the context of the utterance, any pre-existing knowledge about those involved, the inferred intent of the speaker, and other factors. In that respect, pragmatics explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity since meaning relies on the manner, place, time, etc. of an utterance.

Phonetics and phonology

Phonetics and phonology are branches of linguistics concerned with sounds (or the equivalent aspects of sign languages). Phonetics is largely concerned with the physical aspects of sounds such as their articulation, acoustics, production, and perception. Phonology is concerned with the linguistic abstractions and categorizations of sounds.


Linguistic typology (or language typology) is a field of linguistics that studies and classifies languages according to their structural features. Its aim is to describe and explain the common properties and the structural diversity of the world's languages. Its subdisciplines include, but are not limited to: qualitative typology, which deals with the issue of comparing languages and within-language variance; quantitative typology, which deals with the distribution of structural patterns in the world's languages; theoretical typology, which explains these distributions; syntactic typology, which deals with word order, word form, word grammar and word choice; and lexical typology, which deals with language vocabulary.

Language varieties

Languages exist on a wide continuum of conventionalization with blurry divisions between concepts such as dialects and languages. Languages can undergo internal changes which lead to the development of subvarieties such as linguistic registers, accents, and dialects. Similarly, languages can undergo changes caused by contact with speakers of other languages, and new language varieties may be born from these contact situations through the process of language genesis.


Further Resources


Concepts, origin, and Noam Chomsky's contribution to linguistics


Meaning (Semantics and Pragmatics) | Linguistic Society of America


Steven Pinker: Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain | Big Think


October 6, 2012

What is Linguistics?: Crash Course Linguistics #1


September 11, 2020

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