A Brief Tour of Linguistics

A Brief Tour of Linguistics

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.

Language or language?

In linguistics, we like to make a distinction between capital-L Language, and little-L language. As you might expect, English, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, &c. are all little-L languages. We consider each language an iteration of the universal, innate ability that humans have to speak, which we call capital-L Language. It is the underpinning of every language. But Language isn’t something that we can really study directly; it has to be pieced together from it’s iterations, i.e. the languages we all speak. Linguistics uses languages to try and figure out Language.

This is why linguists do not have to by polyglots, speakers of many languages. Linguists have to approach languages from the perspective of native speakers and dissect it. That can be aided by knowing some of the language, but by no means does someone have to fully understand (i.e. be able to speak) a language in order to understand the functioning of some of it.

On a personal note, this is why this blog is amori linguae. This translates to ‘for the love of Language’. For those of you who don’t know Latin well (or at all), I should note that Latin rarely uses a mix of uppercase and lowercase, unlike English. I had to find another way to distinguish Language and language. I figured amori linguae was good as a counterpoint to amori linguarum ‘for the love of languages’, which would be a polyglottic sentiment.


This post will come as no surprise to people who have read my first few articles. It is pretty clear when one examines them, that I am a descriptivist. Most linguists are descriptivists. This means that we are interested in describing and analysing languages as they are and not interested in dictating what languages should be. People, often grammarians, who are interested in influencing languages and keeping them the same are called prescriptivists. These prescriptivists are the ones who created all those odd grammar rules, such as ‘don’t split infinitives’.

I’m sure some of you who have read my previous posts will have already jumped on board, as those posts were heavily infused with an air of descriptivism. But I’m sure some of you are still skeptical. I’d like to take you on a brief tour about why I’m a descriptivist. This isn’t the traditional tour, but it’s my tour.

The first reason has nothing to do with language or languages. Linguistics is a science. People might like to say it’s such a ‘soft’ science, like it’s inferior, but that is in no way the case. Science is dependent not on what is being studied, but how it is studied. You can find a number of books and websites that all spout the scientific method. This method is a means of figuring out the world (and the universe) as it is, and not as it should be or as we’d like it to be. For this reason, we have to swallow our pride and be descriptivists if we’re going to be intellectually honest.

The second reason is that prescriptivism is fighting a losing battle and chasing a dream. Language is always changing, and trying to get it to stop or trying to regulate the change is a losing battle. We can see this in l’Académie française ‘the French Academy’, which does its best to regulate the French language. Despite this, French changes continually, which can make l’Académie look out of touch. English also changes. Have you ever seen the text of Beowulf in its original form? There is no way to read it if you haven’t studied Old English. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales looks slightly more intelligible, but you still really ought to have a reading guide or a translation if you haven’t studied Middle English. But English didn’t suddenly transition from one to the other. People have been speaking English and understanding one another continually from Beowulf to the present day. I mean, Shakespeare is Modern English, and we can mostly understand it, but it still requires a bit of work to understand properly. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” makes no sense if you haven’t been told what ‘wherefore’ means, or have had no exposure to the old form of the second-person singular/familiar: ‘thou/thee/thy’, or only know of the word ‘art’ in relation to fine art. But it’s Modern English and it’s so different (granted early modern, but it’s still close enough to mostly understand)! Language is changing around us (and because of us) and there’s nothing to be gained by trying to fix it in place forever. We can, however, study it as it is, and preserve that record for the future, which will be much more useful in the long run. That is what descriptivists can do if they’re worried about language change.

Lastly, language is too big for a small section of people to regulate it. With a few exceptions for those with considerable brain damage or who have suffered massive abuse, every single human speaks a language. Each of them has to use it a lot. With rare exceptions, everyone does at least one of the following each day: speaking, listening, reading, or writing. Some do all four regularly. And people who spend a day doing none of those, which I think you’ll find hard to imagine, will probably spend some time thinking in a language. With so many people using language so often in an integral part of their lives, there’s no practical way to get people follow arbitrary rules a tiny number of people come up with. And I wouldn’t want to, because that defeats the point of studying language in the first place.

Language is a huge and beautiful subject matter. It is too big and too transitory to regulate. It’s also unscientific to pass it off as something it’s not, just because we don’t fully understand it yet. This is why linguists take language as it is, and are therefore descriptivists.

What’s a word?

When you’re talking about a subject, you often need to make sure you understand the basics that you’re working with. As such, I will be posting a series of posts on the basics of language. They may not be in the order you would learn them in a class, but I hope that they will be helpful and accessible anyway.

What’s a word? That sounds like a stupid question. However, words are highly important to the study of language, and thus it’s important to get a good grasp on them up front. Despite appearances, this question is a very tricky one. But I think we can get a hold on it.

So what is a word?

Your first instinct is probably to say that a word is something that’s in the dictionary. But that doesn’t explain how the word to google got into the dictionary, seeing as nobody used it when I was born in 1991, and certainly people were using it before it appeared in the dictionary.

In fact, saying that it is in ‘the dictionary’ is misleading. Which dictionary? They’re all different. Some of them are comprehensive and some of them are specialised for certain fields, such as medicine, and some of them are abridged, containing only the words the publishers think the users are most likely to come across. But that’s besides the point, because we don’t read dictionaries to learn words, and I guarantee you’ve not looked up most of the words you know in your native language. It turns out that we have a mental dictionary that we pull words from. It’s called the mental lexicon.

This still doesn’t solve what a word is. You might say that words have spaces between them. This is true, but speech doesn’t have pauses between words, and not all cultures put spaces between their words.

In order to solve this, I have to introduce you to a linguistic concept: the morpheme. Morphemes are defined as the smallest set of sounds possible that contains one meaning. This means that the word walk is a morpheme. You can’t say wa or alk and have it mean something. But you can have an ending, such as -ed, that means something, even if it can’t stand on its own. Morphemes can be short, but they can also get long: giraffe is one morpheme.

This gives us a nice way to define a word. A word is one or more morphemes that can stand alone. In this case, walk is a word with one morpheme standing on its own, but -ed is not. But together, walk + ed or walked is a word with two morphemes standing alone together. So a word is one or more morphemes, or pieces of language that have meaning, stuck together standing alone. This is a perfectly acceptable definition of a word.

But this can get more interesting, and more importantly, more precise. Let’s try an exercise to see if we can’t illuminate the imprecision. Count the words for me in this sentence:

My cat and I went to our neighbour’s house, and we had a playdate with her cats.

My guess is that you probably got 17, though some of you may have gotten 16, or even 13. Why do we get these differences? Well, it turns out that’s a function of our current definition of a word. Let’s investigate.

If you just counted every word, as broken up by the spaces in that sentence, you should have gotten 17. This is what we linguists call word tokens: each individual set of morphemes that can stand alone.

But what about the two ands? Do those count as one word or two? Well they count as two different tokens, but they are the same word type, identical words in sound and meaning. That brings the count down to 16 as there are no other words that appear in the same way twice in that sentence.

You’ve probably now caught onto another discrepancy with the precision of our definition of word. What about cat and cats? They’re not the same token or type, but they’re pretty much the same word. This is what we call a lexeme. A lexeme is like a dictionary entry, in that it covers a range of related types that we mentally clump together. This means that cat and cats are one lexeme, but also I & my and we & our. The first lexeme is made of a type and its plural type, and the others are both a type and its possessive. When we don’t count repeats, as they belong to the same lexeme, we can see our word count drop to 13.

So now I hope you understand better what a word is, and what the categories of word are. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below!

Word Log December 2013

I’m starting a new type of blog post. From time to time, I’ll be posting a word log monthly. This word log is an exercise in finding the new words I encounter around me. Each month I will post the new words I’ve found. I will try to not post words that are too technical or specialised, but that might not work. So here’s my word list for December 2013, roughly in the order which I found them.

in such a way that refers to a narrator who is both narrating events and experiencing events.
many and of various types
an excessive amount of something
having or showing signs of a fever
an event where soil or sand saturated with water becomes quicksand temporarily, when disturbed, most noticeably in an earthquake
a brief publication notes sometimes with a printer’s mark in a book
a surgery for making an alternate channel for feces to leave the body
silver-line (v.)
to make an upside to a negative situation
the pushing of dangerous events close t disaster to achieve the best outcome for the pushing party
a wave in an enclosed body of water
One of a group of disorders that interfere with the body’s enzymes, one result of which is in the purple discolouration of urine and feces.
both the reddish-purple seaweed or the greek word for royal purple
chaotic, disorganised, or mismanaged
assuming that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe both have always existed and exist everywhere in the universe
swamp cooler
a device used in dry climates to cool people, used similar to an air conditioner
similar to using a plot device without explanation
referring to medieval Scandinavian poetry
serfs of the Spartans, who the Spartans were allowed to kill without penalty for a portion of each year
a bee-yard where hives are kept
the condition of being a native to a place
the process by which people are made dangerously violent
a type of grass useful in erosion prevention, pest repellent, and as a flavouring or scent
the amount of consent
a surgically made opening which connects the inside of the body to the outside environment
the end of the tract which can be seen protruding from the body, often used interchangeably with ostomy
the mirth of something
to make something out to be bad or worse
someone in a group who always points out the negatives
to head down a slippery slope and magnify a bad event in one’s head.
a low frustration tolerance
telling someone, usually yourself, what you should do or should have done, taking away the ability to think clearly about a situation as it is
the state or quality of expecting, usually too much, of someone
tending to absorb moisture from the air
the bonding of molecules or particles to the surface of a solid
the amount of revolution
an expert in some field of forensics
human-centipede (v.)
to splice something together in a way that is either horrifying, disgusting, or both
indecent or salacious
dealing with the final arrangement, usually of property, usually by deed or will
being a characteristic of a citrus fruit
a theory of textual interpretation, usually applied to texts either philosophical or taken as scripture
either the copulation of sheep or the mating season of sheep
pleasant to hear; sweet or musical
referring to the spaces between something
a summary or abstract of a text or speech
the illusion or misperception of a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct, such as the man in the moon
the having of a ready or shrewd insight into things
intersecting or lying at right angles or having perpendicular slopes or tangents at the point of intersection

Why You Are Wrong When You Say “That’s Not a Word”

For my first post, I figured I’d try to piss of a large part of the internet. Let it never be said I shy from unpopular positions that need taking. Today I am here to tell you that whenever you say, “That’s not a word,” you are wrong, and furthermore, you are saying it for the wrong reasons.

To start, we need to clarify this a bit. I expect that the phrase, “That’s not a word,” is actually found quite often in specialised contexts where the definition of word must be highly specific (defining ‘word’ is terribly complicated, and something I will make a post on later), such as on the show Countdown, in games of Scrabble, and so forth. What I am talking about is the most prolific type of speech, everyday communication. This comes in a few forms—personal, professional, &c.—and may be verbal or written, but on the whole it is organic and not intended to discuss grammar. In this case, grammar means the dissection of language, i.e. words, sentences, &c. This everyday speech may include written sources, such as personal emails, Facebook posts, or business reports, as long as they are not intended to discuss grammar.

Everyday speech is communication. In fact, even speech that does not qualify here, counts as communication. Speech, written or verbal, is meant to communicate something to other people, be it how your day went to your friend or how some aspect of the business is getting along to your boss. The former example could be by text, Twitter, Skype, or even in person (horror of horrors). The later example could be in a formal business meeting, conference call, or in a report. And we know this is true because nobody writes a report just for fun. It’s written because someone wants some piece of communication in a specific manner, again falling under the category of communication.

So why in everyday communication is ‘that’s not a word’ wrong? If someone is saying ‘that’s not a word’, then chances are, the communication was successful. When someone says to you, “Irregardless, we hopped on the train”, you understand the person’s communicative attempt. Saying ‘that’s not a word’ at this point just falls into the second category of being wrong, which we’ll get to soon. The communication was successful, and regardless of your preferences or what their English professor may think of them, saying ‘that’s not a word’ only serves to halt the communication stream between parties and bring that train of thought to a thundering halt. This is not terribly productive, and it is my belief that such behaviour should be stemmed.

If you’re with me so far, you may have come up with the following objection: but what if you don’t understand what they’re saying? That’s a really good question. To answer it, we have to first discuss something else: priming. In psychology, the phenomenon of priming is when your mind has been primed to think of something, that is, preexposed to that something, it is more likely to jump to it in the immediate future. This is partly why I rule out discussion of grammar from our definition of speech: because such conversations leave people primed to think of something that they may not in everyday speech. By writing or reading this post, we are contaminated in being primed by the statement ‘that’s not a word’. If you spoke to someone within the next five minutes, barring emergency, if they use a word that you don’t understand, you would be more likely to say ‘that’s not a word’. However, thinking about someone not primed by the phrase, when they come across someone random in the street who says to them, “Thank the lord, I’ve been beduggered!” they are likely to say something like, “What?”, “Huh?”, “What are you saying?”, or “How many drugs are you on?”. The are going to say this, because the communication failed, and because speech is about communication and not the words that make it up, the listener is more concerned about the intent that this random stranger was trying to convey. This would probably also happen within families or with close friends, although context might mitigate such confusion. Still, that sentence could be filled with a number of words: “I’ve been saved”, “I’ve been healed”, “I’ve been promoted”, “I’ve been cured”, &c. There’s no real way to guess with any degree of certainty the meaning of this non-word. It could be an archaic word, or a specialised word, but in this case, it’s just nonsense. It is not a word, but people in everyday speech aren’t going to say that.

If you find yourself saying the above line or something similar, you probably are or have been trained by a classical grammar snob, even if you don’t know it. A very, very brief history of how students have been taught English (or language arts nowadays) is that somewhere in history, teachers decided that because French and Latin (though mostly the latter) were both better and more sophisticated languages, English should mirror them as much as possible. This came to pass, and classical grammar snobs wrote a bunch of rules to make English more latinate, and that has been taught as How It Is to many young students. This brings people to think that splitting infinitives is terrible and that dangling participles are akin to original sin. It also promotes English as either right or wrong, rather than whether it works as communication. This is quite silly. We split infinitives and ‘dangle’ our participles all the time to communicate in a natural manner. This insight has lead to the quote probably misattributed to Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put”. If you simply take the time to listen or look for these phenomena, you will find them all over everyday speech. The English language is not Latin, has different rules, sometimes has different effective ways of saying the same thing, and therefore, should not be judged by such standards.

‘That is not a word’, will probably not come up in everyday speech in response to an unknown word, because listeners are too worried about the communication error. When someone does say that, they are likely saying it because they were taught that is How It Is, which is just not true. Language is a tool of the people who use it, used to communicate with other people. If the communication works, saying that something is not a word is just plain counterproductive to communication, and therefore wrong.


Everyone is my …

Everyone is my teacher. Some I seek. Some I subconsciously attract. Often I learn simply by observing others. Some may be completely unaware that I’m learning from them, yet I bow deeply in gratitude.

—Eric Allen

I think this is an appropriate quote to jump start my journey into blogging. As has become more obvious to me recently, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions that I ought to write about. I shall endeavour here to discuss many topics thoughtfully honestly. As the title of this blog suggests, I will be addressing topics within linguistics. I hope you will join me on this blogging journey.