Linguistics 001  2: Perspectives and Approaches

What is linguistics?

Here are two answers based on those found in  The sci.lang FAQ :

    The scientific study of human language, including:

        Phonetics (physical nature of speech)
        Phonology (sound structure of language)
        Morphology (the structure of words)
        Syntax (the structure of sentences)
       Semantics (the meaning of words & sentences)
        Pragmatics (how speakers and writers use language to do things)

    Or, carving it up another way:

        Theoretical linguistics (the nature of language)
        Historical linguistics (how languages change; reconstruction of earlier stages)
        Sociolinguistics (language and society)
        Psycholinguistics (language in the mind and brain)
        Applied linguistics (language teaching, translation, etc.)
        Computational linguistics (computer processing of human language)
        ... and many others in this list...

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 words and phrases that connect them.

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.

Here is a list of linguistics journals, in many cases with links to online abstracts or full text, and here are some links to 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. Computational Linguistics
  7. Computer Speech and Language
  8. Speech Communication
  9. Language Variation and Change
  10. International Journal of American Linguistics
  11. Journal of Chinese Linguistics
  12. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research
  13. Forensic Linguistics

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 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.






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