Today I’d like to give you a brief tour of linguistics. Linguistics is a very broad term which has different areas which together give us a comprehensive understanding of Language. There are various specialties that make up the field. I’ll start with what’s considered to be the core, and then work my way into other fields.
The core of linguistics is usually posited as between 4-6 categories. The categories are phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Phonetics and phonology are often lumped together, as are syntax and semantics. Morphology and pragmatics are usually seen as more optional in a low level of understanding for historical and practical reasons which we’ll get to.
Phonetics is the very basic understanding of sounds that humans make. This is subdivided into three areas. Articulatory phonetics is the study of how people use their vocal tract to articulate sound. Acoustic phonetics looks at the properties of sound transmission and physical properties of speech. Auditory phonetics studies the sensation and perception of speech. There is not a whole lot of work done in this field when it comes to signed languages, although there is a recent series of papers on the subject which I haven’t yet read. In vocal speech, however, we still have a ways to go, especially in acoustic phonetics. We have a pretty good understanding of articulatory phonetics as evidenced by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which lets us write out exactly the sounds someone makes by assigning one character to one sound and vice versa. None of this wishy-washy trying to figure out whether something is a ‘long i’ or ‘short i’.
Phonology studies the sounds that we’ve defined in phonetics (particularly articulatory) as they exist together. It tells us how each language sees sounds somewhat differently. For example, in English everyone knows that plurals end in an s. Phonology tells us that English actually has three different phonetic sounds for this. We can see that cats has an s, but less intuitively, dogs has a z sound. Weirder still, foxes have a vowel and a z sound, marked as /əz/. Phonology helps us figure out the difference between these cases, and how and why it occurs. It also helps us define the rules a language has, which contributes to its sound. This is called phonotactics. The amount of consonants that a language can cluster together and sounds that can only go at the beginning or the end of a word or syllable are things that phonotactics tell us.
The next layer of complexity is morphology. Morphology is word structure. This revolves around the morphemes I talked about in a previous post, the smallest units of meaning. Morphology is concerned with how words are learned and formed when speaking, that is to say what affixes (prefixes and suffixes in English) a word (token) might take on or how it might change altogether. If a token changes to another form within its lexeme, we call it inflectional morphology. If a token changes to a form outside its lexeme, we call that derivational morphology. For example, run and running are within the same lexeme, so adding -ing was inflectional morphology. But run and runner are not, so adding -er ‘doer’ derived a new lexeme.
Finally, we can put our words into phrases and sentences. Syntax helps us with our sentence structure and to understand why English has a subject-verb-object (SVO) word order, but Maori has verb-subject-object (VSO) word order. There’s not much to be said on a very introductory level about syntax. It’s pretty much all trying to figure out why the words go in the order that they go, but it really is highly complex. And syntax is intrinsically intertwined with semantics. Semantics is the meaning of a word without any context for the word. For instance, semantic rules dictate why “John looked at him” and “John looked at himself” are different.
If we want to look at the meanings of words in context, we have to look at pragmatics. Pragmatics isn’t coded into our language, but it adds ‘ulterior’ meaning, often relevant to the particular setting of the speech act. Pragmatics is how we figure out ambiguity. The sentence ‘the man saw the bird with the binoculars’ is technically ambiguous. It normally means something like ‘the man saw the bird by looking through his binoculars’, but takes on an entirely different meaning when a pet owner has decided to put toy binoculars on her parakeet. Pragmatics lets us understand this distinction.
From this core, linguistics often intersects with many different fields. I’m not really going to go into all of them here, because I want to keep this post a reasonable length. I made the chart above showing how linguistics is applied to other fields. (I submitted it to I Love Charts.) I just want to give you a guide with the example of one category. At about the 7:30 position on this chart, we have the History/Historical Linguistics bubble. History, we all know is the study of the past, and how things have changed to get to the present. Historical linguistics is the same thing, just with a focus on languages. It looks at past languages and how languages have changed and interacted to get to the present. Hopefully you can get a sense of what things look like.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my brief tour of linguistics. If you liked anything you saw and want me to talk about it more, please comment and let me know.