Linguistics 001  2: Perspectives and Approaches

What is linguistics?

Short answer: "The scientific study of human language".

Longer answer: Linguistics, like biology or physics or anthropology or psychology, can be many different things.

As usual, the traditional division into named subdisciplines is partly logical and partly historical. Most research topics are inter- or trans-disciplinary, often reaching outside of the traditional boundaries of linguistics as well as across traditional subdisciplines. But you should learn the traditional nomenclature -- it will teach you something about speech and language, as well as about the history and sociology of the people who have studied speech and language.

One way to divide linguistics into different subdisciplines is in terms of the level of language being studied. There are six traditional levels on the way from sound to meaning:

Phonetics: Speech as a physical process.
Phonology: Systems of linguistic sound structure.
Morphology: The structure of words.
Syntax: The structure of phrases and sentences.
Semantics: The meaning of words and phrases.
Pragmatics: How speakers and writers use language to communicate.

An alternative -- and larger! -- set of divisions looks at connections between linguistics and applications or motivations:

Theoretical linguistics: Basic principles.
Historical linguistics: Language change and the reconstruction of linguistic history.
Psycholinguistics: Psychology of language; language learning and language processing.
Computational linguistics: Algorithms for computer analysis of text and speech.
Sociolinguistics: Language in society.
Dialectology: Geographical and social variation in language.

... and so on ...

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. Speech communication depends on conventional connections between sound and meaning. To understand how it works, we need to describe and analyze the sounds, the meanings, and the structures that connect them.

Research that spans several 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 the problems we use linguistic analysis to engage. Each subdiscipline in this second set 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 (language planning, language documentation, forensic linguistics, neurolinguistics, metrics, and so on).

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.

Here is a long list of linguistics journals, in many cases with links to online abstracts or full text.

And here a short list of a few of the hundreds of specific journals in different areas of linguistics:

  1. Language
  2. Linguistic Inquiry
  3. Journal of Phonetics
  4. Journal of Semantics
  5. Journal of Pragmatics
  6. Semantics and Pragmatics
  7. Computational Linguistics
  8. Computer Speech and Language
  9. Speech Communication
  10. Language Variation and Change
  11. International Journal of American Linguistics
  12. Journal of Chinese Linguistics
  13. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research
  14. International Journal of Speech, Language, and the Law

Many of these journals now offer on-line access to their content. For example, you can browse the Journal of Semantics (courtesy of Oxford University Press) to find the text of an article by Temple University's Muffy Siegel on the meaning of 'like' in examples like

She isn't like really crazy or anything, but her and her like five buddies did like paint their hair a really fake-looking like purple color.

You can browse Computational Linguistics (courtesy of MIT Press) to find an article by Philip Edmonds and Graeme Hirst presenting "a new computational model for representing the fine-grained meanings of near-synonyms," which can tell you whether to translate French bévue as English "error, mistake, blunder, slip, lapse, boner, faux pas [or] boo-boo."

You can browse the Journal of Phonetics (courtesy of Academic Press) to find an article by Louis-Jean Boë, Jean-Louis Heim, Kiyoshi Honda and Shinji Maeda arguing that Neandertals had a vowel space potentially as large as that of modern humans, and thus were not anatomically precluded from speaking.

You can browse Language Variation and Change (courtesy of Cambridge University Press) to find an article by Colette Moore explaining why the pattern of subject-verb argreement in this letter from Dame Agnes Plumpton to Sir Robert Plumpton, dated 12 April 1504, was regular and expected for her place and time:

All your servants is in good health, & prayes delygently for your good speed in your matters. And also it is sayed qat they haue cagments for them qat hath bought the wood, qat they dare not deals therewith . . .

For each of these articles, you should ask yourself: what levels of linguistic analysis are discussed? what motivations and applications are intended?

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). These concepts are important in computer science, as in this book on the semantics of programming languages, as well as in work that deals with communication among humans.

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 (ACL) has a useful digital archive of research papers.

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.






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