Linguistics 001     Lecture 2    Persectives and Approaches

What is linguistics?

Here are two answers from  The sci.lang FAQ :

    The scientific study of human language, including:

         Phonetics (physical nature of speech)
         Phonology (use of sounds in language)
         Morphology (word formation)
         Syntax (sentence structure)
        Semantics (meaning of words & how they combine into sentences)
         Pragmatics (effect of situation on language use)

    Or, carving it up another way:

         Theoretical linguistics (pure and simple: how languages work)
         Historical linguistics (how languages got to be the way they are)
         Sociolinguistics (language and the structure of society)
         Psycholinguistics (how language is implemented in the brain)
         Applied linguistics (teaching, translation, etc.)
         Computational linguistics (computer processing of human language)

The first set of six categories -- from phonetics to pragmatics -- divides up the study of the linguistic system itself. Each category focuses on a different level of description and analysis. Research that spans two levels, or deals explicitly with their relationship, may rate a compound designator. This is especially common with morphology, since word structure is inevitably tied both to sentence structure -- morphosyntax -- and to word-related effects on sound structure -- morphophonology.

The second list of categories -- theoretical, historical, socio- etc. -- tells us about possible connections between linguistics and external topics. Each of this second set of linguistic subdisciplines can in principle deal with any of the six levels of description in the first set. Thus sociolinguists study the social dimensions of pronunciation (phonetics or phonology), word and sentence structure (morphology and syntax), conversational styles (pragmatics), and so on. Psycholinguists have studied perception, production and learning of a similar range of topics. The list of topics related to language or language use is open-ended, and so the second list could be extended almost indefinitely (forensic linguistics, neurolinguistics, metrics, other applications in literary studies, etc.)

Theoretical linguistics is distinguished by focusing not on any external topics, but rather on the nature of the linguistic system in and of itself. Linguistic theory again can deal with any of the six levels of analysis. We can also cite the category of descriptive linguistics, which aims to create systematic descriptions of the facts of particular languages, and again deals with any or all of the analytic levels.

Follow this link for examples of the distinctions among levels of description.

Follow this one for examples of different connections to external topics.

What is language?

For most linguists, language is the pattern of human speech, and the (implicit) systems that speaking and listening rely on.

Other phenomena come to be called "language" because of more or less close connections or analogies to this central case: writing, sign languages, computer languages, the language of dolphins or bees. The ordinary-language meaning of the word reflects this process of extension from a speech-related core . The etymology of the word, from Fr. langue "tongue," makes the same point.

From the American Heritage Dictionary:
[lan-guage]   (NOUN).
    1. a. The use by human beings of voice sounds, and often of written symbols that represent these sounds, in organized combinations and patterns to express and communicate thoughts and feelings.
    1. b. A system of words formed from such combinations and patterns, used by the people of a particular country or by a group of people with a shared history or set of traditions.
    2. A nonverbal method of communicating ideas, as by a system of signs, symbols, or gestures: ``the language of algebra.''
    3. Body language.
    4. The special vocabulary and usages of a scientific, professional, or other group.
    5. A characteristic style of speech or writing: ``ribald language.''
    6. a. Abusive, violent, or profane utterance: ``language that would make your hair curl (W.S. Gilbert).''
    6. b. A particular manner of utterance: ``gentle language.''
    7. The manner or means of communication between living creatures other than humans: ``the language of dolphins.''
    8. Language as a subject of study.
    9. The wording of a legal document or statute as distinct from the spirit.
    10. Computer Science. Machine language.

Note that the phenomena named by the extended senses are quite different from one another. Writing is a system of transcription for speech. Deaf sign languages are an expression in a different medium of the same underlying human capabilities and needs as spoken language. Computer languages are artificial systems with some formal analogies (of debatable significance) to the systems underlying human speech.

Some linguists think that the boundary between the patterns of spoken language and other modes of communication is not a sharp one, or even that it is entirely artificial. For them, the extended senses of the word "language" belong to the same subject matter as the core sense. A larger proportion of poets, philosophers and religious thinkers agree with them, often going on to view language as magically connected to the world it describes: In the beginning was the word...

The core of the field of linguistics has always been the analysis of linguistic structure, and this course will introduce the basic concepts of this disciplinary core. However, there is much intellectual, practical and human interest in other aspects of the study of language, and we'll survey these as well. 

Connections to other disciplines

Linguistics has many more or less obvious connections with other disciplines, some of which we've just mentioned. Psychologists study how language is learned and used. Anthropologists and sociologists examine the role of language in culture and society. Philosophers are interested in the nature of sense and reference. Computer scientists try to develop artificial models of the structures and processes involved in language use. Physiologists want to understand how language is produced and perceived by the brain, mouth and ear. Criminologists and literary scholars face the problem of determining the authorship of a particular spoken or written document.

Some of these connections are made within linguistics itself. For instance, the Penn linguistics department includes specialists in sociolingustics, psycholinguistics, historical linguistics and computational linguistics. In other cases, the work may be carried out within another field, or at least another department -- neurology, psychology, computer science, philosophy, anthropology, history -- perhaps in consultation with a card-carrying linguist.

We could continue the list of connections almost indefinitely, and could also expand each item at length. During the course, we'll point out numerous connections of this kind.

Some wider conceptual and mathematical connections

In addition to these direct connections of subject matter, linguistics shares terminology, conceptual approaches, practical techniques and mathematical methods with other disciplines, often in ways that are less obvious.

We will give only a few illustrative examples here.

Semiotics is the study of signs and signalling systems. It was developed around the turn of the 20th century by the philosopher  C.S. Peirce, the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and others. It provides a general framework for thinking about meaning and communication, and many technical terms for expressing such thoughts. As a result,  semiotic concepts and  terminology are used in fields as diverse as anthropology, computer science and the history of art.

One example of useful semiotic terminology is the opposition among syntax (the relations among signs in combination), semantics (the relations between signs and the things they refer to), and pragmatics (the relations between signs and their users or circumstances of use). Here is a contemporary example of the distinction between syntax and semantics used in an essay about dangers to computer networks.

Another example is the provided by the categories of index (a sign that alludes to what it signifies through some sort of causal link),  icon (a sign that ressembles what it signifies) and symbol (a sign connected to what it signifies by arbitrary convention).
Many of the concepts and techniques of formal language theory  were originally developed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s, while he was a graduate student in linguistics at Penn, in order to reason about the problems involved in (natural) language learning. This field has since become part of the standard curriculum in computer science, where it is applied to the design and analysis of computer languages, and to other problems in areas ranging from pattern recognition to DNA analysis. Computational linguistics proper remains a diverse and lively field, and Penn has always been one of the most active research centers. The Association for Computational Linguistics maintains a compendium of useful information called the NLP/CL Universe.

Models of speech production and perception are developed both for scientific and technological reasons. Speech technology has become a large field, with increasingly broad applications. Much of speech technology involves particular applications of very general techniques, such as signal processing or statistical pattern recognition. The comp.speech FAQ provides an excellent overview.


Some myths and facts about language

There are plenty of valid controversies about language.

Some questions are entirely political: should governments try to accommodate speakers of  minority languages? how important is it to maintain rigorous standards of usage? is it bad to borrow words from another languages rather than inventing native ones?

Other questions are factual, though they have immediate practical consequences: does bilingual education work? what are the consequences of oral education for deaf children? to what extent can ordinary citizens understand legal contracts? how well do computer speech recognition systems work?

A third set of questions are mainly interesting to those who care about language itself:
are Korean and Japanese derived from the same historical source? how much of linguistic structure is innate, and how much emerges from the experience of communication? why will most English speakers delete "that" in "this is the book [that] Kim told me about," but not in "this is the book [that] impressed Kim so much"?

Reasonable and informed people can and do disagree about these and innumerable other linguistic issues. Particular arguments may be illogical, or particular claims may be false, as in any debate, but our state of knowledge leaves room for a range of opinions.   
On the other hand, there are some disagreements about language where one side is just wrong, as wrong as those who believe that the earth is flat or that it was created out of nothing in 4004 BC .

In some cases, the "flat earth" position is only held by exceptionally ignorant people, and gives rise to jokes with punch lines like "if English was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me." However, there are plenty of misconceptions about language among otherwise reasonable people, not to mention French literary theorists or popular pundits. These are worth calling myths.

Here are  some examples of linguistic myths from the sci.lang FAQ.

A couple of other examples:

Myth: speech and writing are parallel forms of linguistic expression, different but equally fundamental types of text.
Fact:  Speech is primary, writing is secondary and is always derivative of speech.

Myth: non-standard dialects are degraded and errorful versions of standard languages.
Fact: standard languages are either an arbitrary choice among a range of geographical and social dialects, or an artificial construct combining aspects of several dialect sources. Ways of speaking that happen not to be "standardized" in this way have their own history, at least equally valid even if lacking in prestige.

Myth: Primitive cultures have primitive languages, at a lower level of development and less well able to express a wide range of ideas.
Fact: There are no primitive languages; there are no demonstrated differences in fundamental communicative efficacy among  languages.

  La terre est-elle vraiment plate?

Yes, Jacques Derrida really believes that writing both "precedes and follows speech, it comprehends it," and that "there is no linguistic sign before writing," because "a certain model of writing was necessarily but provisionally imposed ... as instrument and technique of representation of a system of language. And ... this movement, unique in style, was so profound that it permitted the thinking, within language, of concepts like those of the sign, technique, representation, language."

This leads him to conclude that

    "[t]he system of writing in general is not exterior to the system of language in general, unless it is granted that the division between the exterior and the interior passes through the interior of the interior or the exterior of the exterior, to the point where the immanence of language is essentially exposed to the intervention of forces that are apparently alien to its system." (all quotes from a translation of  Of Grammatology)

It's hard to argue with that --  if only because Derrida seems determined to prove by example his hypothesis that texts have no intrinsic meaning. However, one wonders how this perspective can make sense of the grammatical system of Panini, developed (in India around 600 BC) entirely orally, for the codification of an entirely oral literature.






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