Linguistics, the scientific study of language. Such study may focus on the sounds, words, and grammar of specific languages; the relationships between languages; or the universal characteristics of all languages. It may also analyse the sociological, psychological, and ethnological aspects of communication.

Languages may be described and analysed from several points of view. A diachronic, or historical, approach considers changes in a language over an extended time period. The study of the development of Latin into the modern Romance languages is an example of diachronic linguistics. In contrast, languages may be studied as they exist at a specific time; an example might be Parisian French in the 1980s. This is called a synchronic approach. Modern linguistics encompasses studies from both the diachronic and synchronic points of view; historical language studies usually focused on a diachronic approach.

Linguistic studies may also be theoretical or applied. Theoretical linguistics is concerned with building language models or theories to describe languages or to explain their structures. Applied linguistics, on the other hand, uses the findings of scientific language study and puts them to practical use in areas such as language teaching, dictionary preparation, or speech therapy. One area that proved fruitful for applied linguistics in the late 20th century was computerized machine translation and automatic speech recognition.


There are many different ways to examine and describe individual languages and changes in languages. Nevertheless, each approach usually takes into account a language’s sounds (phonetics and phonology), word structure (morphology), and sentence structure (syntax). Most analyses also treat vocabulary and the semantics (meaning) of a language.

Phonetics is the study of all speech sounds and the ways in which they are produced, transmitted, and received. Phoneticists looking at the articulation of a sound take into account the flow of air used to produce a sound, the state of the vocal cords at that precise moment, whether it is nasal or oral (that is, the position of the soft palate), the point of articulation (lips, teeth, hard palate), manner of articulation (at the point of articulation), and the position of the lips (for example, open, closed, rounded). Phonology, on the other hand, is the study and identification of the meaningful sounds of a language (not every possible sound in a language). The smallest units of sound that carry meaning in a language are labelled phonemes. Phonological researchers use a system of minimal pairs to establish the phonemes in a language. For example, the words should and would in English are minimal pairs (as are should and shed, and should and shook): by substituting sh for w the meaning of the word is changed, implying that the sounds sh /∫/ and w /w/ are phonemes in English.

Morphology is concerned with the smallest grammatical units, called morphemes, that carry meaning in a language. These may be word roots (as the English cran-, in cranberry) or individual words (in English, bird, ask, charm); word endings (as the English -s for plural: birds, -ed for past tense: asked, -ing for present participle: charming); prefixes and suffixes (for example, English pre-, as in preadmission, or -ness, in openness); and even internal alterations indicating such grammatical categories as tense (English sing-sang), number (English mouse-mice), or case. Morphology is a branch of grammar, as is the syntax. In contrast to morphology, syntax refers to the relations among word elements in a phrase or sentence, the smallest unit of analysis usually being a word. For example, English word order is most commonly subject-verb-object: Mary baked pies. The order pies baked Mary is not meaningful English syntax.

The study of semantics addresses meaning in language. Other approaches (philosophical, logical) also study semantics and have an influence on the linguistic approach, but the latter is less restricted and takes an objective and systematic view of meaning in all languages. In the past, there were three main schools of thought as regards meaning and language. The first reflects Plato’s view that words directly refer to things, although it is easy to find many words that do not obviously relate to things. Another theory disputes a direct relationship between words and things, and instead argues the link between words and things is in our minds: a concept. This theory was promoted by Charles Ogden and I. A. Richards in the 1920s. The behaviourist outlook on semantics was developed by American linguist Leonard Bloomfield in the 1930s, who said that the meaning of language can only be known if the situation of an utterance is taken into consideration, that is, if a stimulus and response for each utterance is identified. Modern linguistics, however, rather than concentrating on what “meaning” is, analyses the way utterances are used in specific contexts.


From antiquity until the 19th century, the philological approach to written language was the dominant form of linguistics.

As early as the 5th-century bc, the Indian grammarian Panini described and analysed the sounds and words of Sanskrit, offering detailed phonetic descriptions. His work is the basis of many modern linguistic concepts. Later, the ancient Greeks and Romans introduced the concept of grammatical categories. The Greeks and Romans did not, however, compare languages with one another.

Centuries later, with the development of printing, the translation of the Bible into many languages, and the subsequent development of new literature, the comparison of languages became possible. In the early 18th century, the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz suggested that European, Asian, and Egyptian languages might have a common ancestor, thereby stimulating the beginnings of the field of comparative philology or comparative linguistics. (Leibniz’s postulation was later proved to be partly correct and partly incorrect.)

Towards the end of the 18th century, Sir William Jones, an English scholar, observed that Sanskrit bore similarities to Greek and Latin, and proposed that the three languages might have developed from a common source. Language scholars in the early 19th century took this hypothesis much further. Jacob Grimm, the German philologist, and Rasmus Christian Rask, a Danish philologist, noted that when the sounds of one language corresponded in a regular pattern to similar sounds in related words in another language, the correspondences were consistent. For example, the initial sounds of Latin pater (“father”) and ped- (“foot”) correspond regularly to English father and foot. See also Grimm’s Law.

By the late 19th century much analysis had been done on sound correspondences. A group of European language scholars known as the neogrammarians put forth the theory that not only were sound correspondences between related languages regular, but any exceptions to these phonetic rules could develop only from borrowings from another language (or from an additional regular rule of sound change). For example, Latin d should correspond to English t, as in dentalis: tooth. The English word dental, however, has a d- sound. The neogrammarian conclusion was that English borrowed dental from Latin, whereas tooth (which has the expected or regularly corresponding t) was a “native” English word.

This method of comparing related words in different languages to discover the existence of regular sound changes became known as the comparative method. It served as a tool in establishing language families, that is, groups of related languages. Using the comparative method, linguists posited an Indo-European family composed of numerous subfamilies, or branches. It is to this family that English, one of the Germanic languages, belongs. See Indo-European Languages.

The description of regular sound correspondences also made it possible to compare different forms of a given language as spoken in different regions and by different groups of people. This field is known as dialectology; it may focus on differences in sounds, grammatical construction, vocabulary, or all three. For example, studies of dialect have delineated such broad American dialect areas as Northern, Midland, and Southern.


The study of linguistics developed in several directions in the 20th century.

A General, Descriptive, and Structural Linguistics

General, or theoretical, linguistics looks at languages in general, while in descriptive linguistics the linguist gathers data from native speakers of a particular language and analyses the components of their speech, organizing the data into separate hierarchical levels of language, for example, phonology, morphology, and syntax (these types of category and concepts are outlined in general linguistic studies). Descriptive analysis was first developed by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas and the American anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir when they confronted the problem of describing hitherto unrecorded Native American languages. Challenging conventional methods and techniques of linguistic description that were based on written texts, they formulated methods for identifying the distinctive, or meaningful, sounds of a language and the minimal units of sound combination that carry meaning (for example, word roots and affixes).

Building on the work of descriptive linguists like Boas and Sapir, the American linguist Leonard Bloomfield proposed a behaviouristic analysis of language, avoiding semantic considerations as much as possible. He emphasized techniques to be used to discover the sounds and grammatical structure of unrecorded languages. Structuralism is the name given to systems of language analysis like Bloomfield’s.

While American structuralism concentrated on the utterances of speech, in Europe structuralism emphasized an underlying, abstract system of language structure that was distinguishable from actual instances of speech. This approach began in 1916 with the posthumous publication of the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist known as the founder of structuralism. Saussure distinguished between the concepts of langue (French for “language”) and parole (“word”). By langue he meant the knowledge that speakers of a language share about what is grammatical in that language. Parole referred to the actual spoken utterances of an individual speaker of the language.

B Prague School Linguistics

Proponents of another form of linguistics that flourished in Prague in the 1930s looked outside the structure of a language and attempted to explain the relation between what is spoken and the context. The Prague school linguists stressed the function of elements within a language and emphasized that the description of a language must include how messages are put across. In the area of phonology, the concept of distinctive features, which divides sounds into their component articulatory and acoustic elements, has been highly regarded and adopted by other schools of language analysis.

C Transformational-Generative Grammar

In the mid-20th century the American linguist Noam Chomsky proposed that linguistics should go beyond describing the structure of languages; it should provide an explanation of how sentences in any language are interpreted and understood. The process, he believed, could be accounted for by a universal human grammar (that is, a model or theory of linguistic knowledge or competence). Linguistic competence refers to the innate, often unconscious, knowledge that allows people to produce and understand sentences, many of which they have never heard before. A system of language analysis that makes it possible to generate all the grammatically acceptable sentences of a language and eliminate ungrammatical constructions is called a generative grammar and was a concept first introduced by Chomsky in the 1950s, although the meaning of the term “generative” has broadened somewhat since then.

According to Chomsky, there are rules of universal grammar and other rules for particular languages. In specific languages, both universal and particular rules are utilized. These rules allow for sentence elements to be arranged in different ways (for example, “Mary hit the ball”, and “The ball was hit by Mary”). A grammar that takes basic, underlying semantic units and transforms them to produce sentences with recognizable and understandable order and units is called a transformational grammar. A transformational-generative grammar is, therefore, a grammar that generates all the acceptable sentences of a language and uses rules, called transformations, to transform, or change, the underlying elements into what a person actually says.

D Modern Comparative Linguistics

Comparative linguistics in the 20th and 21st centuries has been concerned with establishing language families in areas such as North and South America, New Guinea, and Africa. In such regions it has only recently become possible to gather the vast amounts of data that are needed to reconstruct the former stages of current languages and thereby to trace family relationships. Modern comparative linguistics is also involved in a search for linguistic universals. Interest has been renewed in the typological characteristics of the world’s languages, and linguists are now comparing languages with regard to their syntactic structures and grammatical categories (such as gender languages versus non-gender languages, and languages with subjects versus languages with topics). In the Language Universals Project at Stanford University, for example, the American linguist Joseph Greenberg and his colleagues have shown that languages that share a basic word order (such as subject-verb-object or object-verb-subject or object-subject-verb) also share other features of structure. Such comparative studies reflect an effort to discover the range of possibilities in the phonological, structural, and semantic systems of the languages of the world.

E Psycholinguistics

The field of psycholinguistics merges overlapping interests from the studies of psychology and linguistics, and also pragmatics, neurolinguistics, and sociolinguistics. Psycholinguists study the psychological processes (such as memory) believed to affect linguistic behaviour. They are concerned with such topics as language acquisition in children, speech perception, brain disorders that affect language (including aphasia), speech disorders, and neurolinguistics (language and the brain).

F Sociolinguistics and Ethnolinguistics

Simply defined, sociolinguistics is the study of the relationship between language and society. Sociolinguistic studies attempt to describe how speakers from varying social groups (taking into account age, sex, ethnicity, occupation, religion, and class, if applicable) use the rules of speech appropriately in different situations. For example, one study might focus on how one knows when it is proper to address a person as Ms, Mrs, Mary, Doctor, or simply as “you”, while another may look at the speech patterns of Swahili/Lingala/French multilinguals in different contexts.

Sociolinguists believe that the mechanism of language change can be understood by studying the social forces that motivate using different forms in different circumstances. For example, in certain dialects of American English, the pronunciation of the r-sound after vowels (postvocalic r) has been linked to social class. In expressions such as “fourth floor”, some people pronounce the r and others do not, and the usage of the r-sound is claimed to be consistent within a given socio-economic niche. According to a pioneering variationist study by William Labov of English as used in New York, people aspiring to move from the lower middle class to the upper middle class attach prestige to pronouncing the r after vowels. Sometimes they even overcorrect their speech to pronounce r where those they emulate may not.

The studies of ethnolinguistics and sociolinguistics overlap to a certain extent. Ethnolinguistics is the study of language and culture and of the relationship of language with ethnicity (it therefore draws on linguistics, anthropology, and sociolinguistics). However, the study of culture implies a link with that of society, which is where the differences between the two disciplines become blurred. Sociolinguistics can also be said to be similar to psycholinguistics in that both are interested in some extent in language variation and change and in language universals.

See also Grammar; Language.

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