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What-is-Linguistics (1)

What is Linguistics?
Linguistics is a natural science which explores natural language. Linguists
investigate language by observing, gathering, and analyzing how humans use
language in the same way that a scientist uses scientific method to gather and
analyze observable data. The study of language is many faceted thus there are
several linguistic sub-fields. A large body of linguistic research is devoted to
theory such as phonetics (the study of sounds), phonology (the study of how
sounds are strung together), morphology (the formation of words), syntax (the
structure of phrases), and semantics (the construct of meaning). Other fields of
linguistic study are language acquisition (how one learns her native language as
well as foreign languages), historical linguistics (finding the roots of and
connection between languages), socio-linguistics which is focused on language
in society, language change, language planning, and how social constructs
influence language. Cognitive linguistics is the study of the relationship between
the mind and language. Psycholinguistics is the study of how humans perform
Linguistic Knowledge
A grammar is constructed with information about each aspect of language. This
includes the knowledge of what belongs in one’s phonemic (sound) inventory
and what does not. When a French speaker converses with someone who uses
aspirated stops at the beginning of a word, she knows instinctively that this
person is a foreigner since aspirated stops do not exist in French.
A native speaker also knows where sounds are permitted in syllables. An
English speaker will never name his dog Fkido since ‘fk’ cannot come at the
beginning of a syllable.
Stress patterns in words are also part of one’s linguistic knowledge. An
English speaker understands the difference in meaning between:
cón.vict (a noun)
con.víct (a verb).
Mandarin Chinese speakers can immediately tell if they are conversing with a nonnative speaker if the tone of a word is incorrect. The syllable ‘ta’ can have several totally
distinct meanings depending on tone.
‘to lift’
‘to shave’
Native speakers have knowledge of how words may be put together. Even very young
Italian speakers know which verb endings must be used based on the person and
number of the subject. A French native speaker knows that, although ‘ment’ makes an
adverb out of most adjectives, that it doesn’t work for certain words.
lente +
ment → lentement
‘slow’ (fem) ADV
vite + ment → *vitement
‘fast’ ADV
Native speakers are able to quickly judge between a grammatical and ungrammatical
phrasal structure. An English speaker knows that the sentences in (5) are well formed
whereas the sentences in (6) are not.
Superman and Lois are good friends.
Lois knows that Superman is Kent Clark.
* Superman are good friends and Lois.
* Lois knows who Superman is Kent Clark.
English speakers adhere to the covert rule that only one noun phrase can be the subject
of a sentence.
Clark Kent loves Lois.
*Clark Kent Superman love Lois.
If a speaker wants to embellish a sentence, she knows she can add prepositional
Mark took a shower at his mother’s house, early this morning, before anyone woke up.
but not nouns alone…..
*Mark took a shower at his mother’s house back yard.
In terms of word meanings, speakers of every language know which concepts are
represented by which words and when meaning is derived by the sound of the word.
No native English speaker under the age of 50 will have any problem discerning the
different meanings of the word ‘sweet’ in (10).
That girl is sweet. ‘nice’
That candy is sweet. ‘sugary’
That Chevy is sweet. ‘nice looking’
Linguistic Performance
A speaker’s competence is displayed by how she uses her language. If she
utters grammatical structures, she is considered linguistically competent.
However, if she utters ungrammatical structures due to a flaw in her mental
representation of that grammar, she is incompetent linguistically. The manner
in which a speaker uses linguistic knowledge is referred to as linguistic
1. This statement assumes the absence of communication disorders.
2. Unacceptable or ungrammatical examples are preceded by an asterisk.
How does language happen? It is largely agreed upon that all humans possess
a biological system of language just as each person comes into this world fully
equipped with a circulatory system. No one teaches her infant how to inhale
through the nostrils or mouth, close the esophagus, open up the trachea, fill
the lungs, keep the diaphragm descended, and slowly release it in order to let
air slowly escape through the trachea and out of the mouth and/or nose. This
biological system requires that each member executes its responsibility in the
proper manner and at the right time so that the function of breathing can take
place. Furthermore, it happens without much, if any thought on the part of the
breather. And if there is a breakdown in any one member, breathing is
inhibited. And thus is the biological system of language. Each of the
components of the language system must join forces in order for a human
being to communicate linguistically. The brain, the lungs, the lips, teeth, and
tongue, to name a few members, must all be in synch in order to bring forth
language. And how many of us think through the process each time we open
our mouths? The process is so much a part of our biological and neurological
make-up that most people would have a hard time describing exactly what
happens during verbal communication. This process is referred to as the
Speech Chain which is comprised of the following steps:
1. An idea is conceived in the brain.
2. The words needed to express the thought are extracted from the lexicon.
3. Sounds are mapped to words.
4. The words are arranged in an acceptable word order.
5. The articulatory tract delivers the sounds.
6. They reach the listener.
7. The listener decodes the sounds and maps them on to meanings which are
found in his lexicon.
8. The listener understands the thought.
When any aspect of this process is inhibited, the message can become
ambiguous or misunderstood. When this process goes smoothly, we have good
This biological language system distinguishes humans from animals. Animals
do communicate, but mainly through signals such as sounds and gestures.
And Polly can tell you she wants a cracker but isn’t able to remind you to
spread it with peanut butter and bring a ginger ale on the side. Scientists have
not yet been able to show that animals have the capacity to expound upon
what happens to them after death, or what they think about the quality of their
water. They do not possess the ability to communicate with any type of verb
inflection stating what has happened in the past or what will happen in the
future, other than signal danger in the immediate future. A German shepherd
may signal his master with a specific bark which warns of eminent danger, but
he cannot explain what that danger is or how to escape it. So what is this basic
difference between animal communication and human language? Grammar.
What is a grammar?
All natural languages have a grammar. And everyone who speaks a language
has a grammar of that language stored in her brain, regardless of linguistic
background or education. A grammar is a mental representation of the rules
which govern any given language. These ‘rules’ do not distinguish between
what is right or wrong, correct or incorrect, but provide a structure, a
scaffolding upon which to build the grammatical structure. Certain rules
pertain to all languages (universal principles) and others are specific to the
language being spoken. Linguists talk about two types of grammars: a
descriptive grammar and a prescriptive grammar.
A descriptive grammar describes the mental rules of a language which govern
linguistic behavior that can be observed. It does not describe what is right or
wrong; it describes what is. As a linguist observes how a group of people speak
their language, he or she will be able to understand which rules are specific to
that language.
Once a group of speakers has established what their language allows and does
not allow, usually over a lengthy period of time, these speakers gain a sense of
what is correct or grammatical, and what is not.3 Thus a prescriptive grammar
is developed, which will mainly be used in teaching these grammatical forms to
new speakers (children and non-natives).
Of course, all languages change over time through the restructuring of
grammar by new generations, by contact with other languages, and by the
addition and loss of words due to the fact that the world is constantly
changing. Thus, descriptive and prescriptive grammars undergo change. In the
21st century it is un-prescribed to say, “I haven’t never seen that.” English
speakers are taught that double negatives are an incorrect and unacceptable
form of speech. However if enough people begin to talk this way, it will become
observable. Once this form is established as ‘acceptable,’ it becomes part of the
descriptive grammar. Once it is brought into the language as acceptable, it
becomes part of the prescriptive grammar and will be included in schoolroom
grammar classes. Hard to imagine? Consider the fact that double negatives
were not only acceptable in Old English as part of the descriptive grammar, but
were actually prescribed!