Linguistics

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Linguistics is the study of language. A linguist may be a person trained in linguistics or a person proficient in several languages. Linguistics studies all aspects of language and includes such diverse subfields as phonetics, semantics, syntax, etymology, lexicology, lexicography, theoretical linguistics, and historical-comparative linguistics.

Historical-comparative linguistics aims to classify the world's languages by their genetic affiliations and to trace the historic development of languages. Theoretical linguistics studies diverse questions: how certain languages managed to communicate, what properties all languages have in common, what knowledge a person must have to be able to use a language, and how children acquire language.

In Europe through the nineteenth century, linguistics centered on the comparative history of the Indo-European languages, with a concern for finding their common roots and tracing their development.

Working from a biblical perspective some scholars believed that all human languages were descended from the language of Adam, a language called the Adamic language. Many of these scholars believed that the Hebrew language was, in fact, the same as the Adamic language. The existence of any such single ancestoral language on timescales indicated by a literal reading of the Bible is not consistent with modern linguistics.

About 1880, scholars in the United States began to record the hundreds of native languages once found in North America. The concern with describing languages has spread throughout the world, and thousands of languages around the world have now been analyzed to varying degrees.

As this work was developing in the early twentieth century, mainly in America, linguists were confronted with languages whose structures differed greatly from those of known European languages. Scholars decided they needed a theory of linguistic structure and methods of analysis. From such concerns came the field of structural linguistics. Pioneers in it include Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Leonard Bloomfield.

When historical-comparative linguistics first met unfamiliar languages, the linguist's first job was to thoroughly describe the language. Linguists generally see language as having several layers, and assume that all natural languages have the same number of layers.

The first layer is phonetics, concerned with the sounds of the language, without regard for the sense. In the task of describing a previously undescribed language, this aspect of its structure must be studied first. Phonetics comes in three varieties: articulatory, concerned with the positions and movements of the lips, tongue, and other speech organs in producing speech; acoustic, concerned with the properties of the sound waves; and auditory, concerned with speech perception.

In a second layer - in phonology - the smallest elements (phonemes) which may differentiate the meaning of word forms are identified and studied. Phonology also includes the study of larger units such as syllables and phonological words and phrases, with their stress and intonation.

At the next level one analyzes the units from which words are assembled, the "morphemes." These are the smallest units of grammar: roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Native speakers recognize the morphemes as grammatically significant or meaningful. They can often be determined by a series of substitutions. A speaker of English recognizes that "make" is a different word from "makes," so the s-suffix is a distinct morpheme. The word "Morpheme" consists of two morphemes, the root "morph-" and the suffix "-eme"; neither one stood alone in English for centuries, until "morph" was adopted in linguistics for the phonological realization of a morpheme, and the verb "morph" was coined to describe a type of visual effect done with computers. A morpheme may have different realizations (morphs) in different contexts. For example, the verb morpheme "do" of English has three quite distinct pronunciations in the words "do", "does" (with suffix "-s"), and "don't" (with "-n't"). Such alternating morphs of a morpheme are called its allomorphs.

Patterns of combinations of words of a language are known as syntax. The term grammar usually covers syntax plus morphology, the study of word formation. Semantics is the study of the meanings of words and of syntactic constructions.

In Europe there was a parallel development of structural linguistcs, influenced most strongly by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss student of Indo-European and general linguistics whose lectures on general linguistics, published posthumously by his students, set the direction of European linguistic analysis from the 1920's on; his approach has been widely adopted in other fields under the broad term "Structuralism."

During the second World War, Leonard Bloomfield and several of his students and colleagues developed teaching materials for a variety of languages whose knowledge was needed for the war effort. This work led to an increasing prominence of the field of linguistics, which became a recognized discipline in most Amercan university only after the war.

Noam Chomsky's formal model of language, transformational grammar, developed under the influence of his teacher Zellig Harris, who was in turn strongly influenced by Bloomfield, was the dominant one from the 1960s through the 1980s, and is still highly regarded in some circles.

From roughly 1980 onwards, pragmatic, functional, and cognitive approaches have steadily gained ground, both in the U.S. and in Europe. A few of the important figures in this movement are Michael Halliday, whose systemic-functional grammar is pursued widely in the U.K., Canada, Australia, China, and Japan; Dell Hymes, who developed a pragmatic approach called The Ethnography of Speaking; George Lakoff, Len Talmy, and Ronald Langacker, who were pioneers in cognitive linguistics; Charles Fillmore and Adele Goldberg, who are associated with construction grammar; and linguists developing several varieties of what they call functional grammar, including Talmy Givon and Robert Van Valin, Jr.

Other important or notable linguists and semioticians include:

See structuralism

One speaks also of philology.

Other areas within linguistics:

Linguistics is also studied with other disciplines, thus:

Representation of speech:

What are our priorities for writing in this area? To help develop a list of the most basic topics in Linguistics, please see Linguistics basic topics.

See also: Linguist


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