What is Linguistics - An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Language

What is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the science of language, including the sounds or signs, words, and grammar rules. Words in languages are finite, but sentences are not. It is this creative aspect of human language that sets it apart from animal languages, which are essentially responses to stimuli.

The rules of a language, also called grammar, are learned as one acquires a language. These rules include phonology, the sound system, morphology, the structure of words, syntax, the combination of words into sentences, semantics, the ways in which sounds and meanings are related, and the lexicon, or mental dictionary of words. When you know a language, you know words in that language, i.e. sound units or signs that are related to specific meanings. However, the sounds or signs and meanings of words are arbitrary. For the most part, there is no relationship between the way a word is pronounced (or signed) and its meaning.

Knowing a language encompasses this entire system, but this knowledge (called competence) is different from behavior (called performance). You may know a language, but you may also choose to not speak it. Although you are not speaking the language, you still have the knowledge of it. However, if you don’t know a language, you cannot speak it at all.

There are two types of grammars: descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive grammars represent the unconscious knowledge of a language. English speakers, for example, know that “me likes apples” is incorrect and “I like apples” is correct, although the speaker may not be able to explain why. Descriptive grammars do not teach the rules of a language, but rather describe rules that are already known. In contrast, prescriptive grammars dictate what a speaker’s grammar should be and they include teaching grammars, which are written to help teach a foreign language.

There are about 7,000 languages in the world right now (a rough estimate), and linguists have discovered that these languages are more alike than different from each other. There are universal concepts and properties that are shared by all languages, and these principles are contained in the Universal Grammar, which forms the basis of all possible human languages.

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Dr. Jennifer Wagner

PhD in Applied Linguistics, ESL/French teacher, author of two French books, and helping others to learn languages online at ielanguages.com.