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An introduction to Linguistics and its subfields

Linguistics is a comprehensive course, but when you tell someone you are studying it, they will probably ask questions such as, how many languages do you speak? Do you know everything in grammar? What is it about?

Linguistics is not in any way related to how many languages one can speak. Many linguistics pros only talk about one of two languages. Learning many languages is not a requirement for studying it, though the interest in many dialects grows in linguists. It is not also about what grammar is correct and which is wrong. Every language in the world, including Southern English, standard American English, Cockney English, and all other dialects, have their correct grammars.

So what is linguistics

In brief, linguistics is a science of languages. It focuses on discerning the operation of the language faculty of the mind; seeks to explain how language itself operates. Linguists, therefore, are not interested in learning the language but in observing patterns within the said language. It unveils the principles that drive our minds’ language understanding and production.

You cannot ask a doctor how many diseases they have because of their profession. It is the same in linguistics; you cannot ask a linguist how many languages they speak. People in linguistics come from different fields, including math, computer science, philosophy, anthropology psychology, and many others.

And this is why linguists work around a vast number of subfields; deal with different parts of the language.

Phonetics

Language manifests different characteristics that create meaning. Phonetics is the study of acoustics and sounds. A phonetician will try to look at stress and how it manifests in language. When reading an English text, for instance, you might notice some words sounding louder than others in a sentence. Consider the following:

ANna loves bananas.”

ANna loves bananas?”

Notice how the stressed syllable in ANNA is pronounced in a lower pitch when asking a question. The sound makes meaning out of a text, and that is what phonetics is all about.

Phonology

Phonology handles the issue of sound systems and their patterns. Consider the sound ‘t’ as used in English words. When put at the beginning of a term, it sounds different from when it is at the end of the same word. Consider a word like “totem.” The first ‘t’ comes out with a puff (trying reading the word with your hand in front of your mount and see how it comes out.” The second ‘t’ sounds a bit flat.

Sound is described by how the tongue, the lips, and other vocals in the mouth and throat relate. A sound described as ‘tap,’ as in‘t,’ has the tongue tapping briefly on your mouth.

Syntax

Syntax is the study of sentence structure. For instance, the ‘wh-movement’ phenomenon describes English and other European languages. Every sentence seems to work around questions words who, what, where, when, why, and how. So when someone says, “I drive a Mitsubishi,” they are probably responding to questions, “what car model do you drive?”

Many properties predict the presence and absence of wh-movement. It is, however, a broad topic that we shall look at later.

Semantics

Does the text make meaning? What is the logic behind it? Semantics tries to answer these questions; it is the study of meaning and logic. Every sentence in any language predicts what is next or what might have happened in the text. Semantics puts meaning into a logical form.

Psycholinguistics

This is the study of language in human psychology; how language appears in the brain. Psychologists can carry out experiments to the reaction of the brain when exposed to varying stimuli. The findings can be related to linguistics theories.

Consider what is known as ‘garden path sentences.’ A psychologist can use it to track a reader’s movement of the eye. Look at this sentence, “The old man the boat.” The reader seems to be led down and false path and will try to double-check when they reach “the’ because they were expecting a verb. Once they read a second time, they will discover the word ‘man’ is used as a verb; the sentence becomes correct. Such a sentence gives a clue on how sentence parsing happens in the brain.

Sociolinguistics

The study is how language interacts with society is known as sociolinguistics. It focuses on defining attitudes towards different language features within a social class, race, sex, and much more. It also looks at how communities differ in terms of code-switching to prestige dialects.

William Labov, one of the founders of sociolinguistics, carried a study in different groups of people in NY City. He visited department stores in three different areas; low end, mid-end, and high end and asked a question that prompted an answer “fourth floor.” The “r” was pronounced differently according to the level of the store. They were asked to repeat, and he discovered only those in mid and high-end stores had the possibility of repeating the sound.

Computational linguistics

As the name suggests, it is the study of how computer science is applied in linguistics. It can use a programming language to design or change, or for practical work. For instance, it can be used in Natural Processing Language to show language acquisition and translation software.

Historical linguistics

This section seeks to understand how languages change over time. Historical linguists work like evolutionary biologists; in the specified area doing “reconstruction.” They work on the basis that language changes constantly. For instance, the letter ‘f’ at the beginning of English words corresponds with ‘p’ in Latin words; e.g., father: pater, fish: Pisces. Linguists can try to establish the ancestral roots of these two patterns.

Applied linguistics

An applied linguist studies the application of linguistics to real-life. It is common in fields like language education, translation, or language policy. A language teacher can, for instance, carry out research to determine ease of acquisition in a second language to discover a better approach for teaching.

Linguistics is quite extensive. There are many other fields, but the ones mentioned above are among the main ones. As you continue with your journey in the fieldLinguistics, you will make more discoveries.  

Author: James Hamilton


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