How Is Language Studied?
Why study language scientifically?
- To learn something about the nature of the mind
- To help those with language disabilities
- To improve language instruction
- For the fun of it
Dividing up the topic
- Phonetics: What is the nature of linguistic sounds (gestures)?
How are they produced and perceived?
- Phonology: How are the sounds of a language organized?
- Morphology: How are words built up out of smaller, meaningful unit?
- Syntax: How are sentences built up out of words?
- Semantics: How does language mean?
- Pragmatics: How does language achieve relate to the speaking (writing,
- Language and non-language
- Language by itself: linguistics proper
- Language and the language user: psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics,
- Language and the world: philosophy of language, (psycholinguistics)
- Language and the community: sociolinguistics, anthropological
- Language and time
- Language as a static system
- Language processing: how utterances are created and comprehended
- Language acquisition: how a language system develops over time
in a language learner
- Language change: how a language or family of languages changes
over historical time
- Language evolution: how human language evolved over time from
a more primitive communication system
What are linguists after?
What knowledge does a native speaker of a language have?
Examples of linguistic knowledge
- Descriptions of individual languages or families of languages
- Descriptions/explanations of language: the search for
- Absolute universals: All language have X.
- Universal tendencies: Languages tend to have X.
- Implicational universals: If a language has X, it will
- Functional universals:
( Languages have X because it
fulfills some function for them.) vs.
Universal Grammar (Languages have X because that's
the way they are.)
- Phonetic knowledge
You know how to produce and recognize the sound /t/ in a variety of
- Phonological knowledge
You know that flin might be an English word, but
- Morphological knowledge
You know how to produce the past tense of a nonsense verb such
- Syntactic knowledge
You know that something is wrong with
I linguistics studying am.
- Semantic knowledge
You know that something is wrong with
Mary kicked the grammar.
- Pragmatic knowledge
You know how to use language to borrow money from a friend.
- Knowledge of varieties of language
You know when gimme a break is ok to use and when
I'm afraid I can't accept that would be more appropriate.
- Texts: written or transcribed
- Experiments: perception/comprehehension, production, acquisition
- Native-speaker judgments
Assumptions and approaches
- What most linguists accept
- People don't have conscious access to their knowledge of language, but
they can make judgments about whether sentences are grammatical or not.
- It is useful (for most linguists fundamental) to distinguish between
performance, what people actually do, and competence, the
knowledge behind what they do.
In particular performance may involve errors, which do not reflect the
- In order to describe language, it is necessary to make a distinction
between the forms that are actually produced, surface forms, and
the more abstract underlying forms that are behind them.
In particular ambiguous surface forms require different underlying
- With respect to the association between form and meaning, language
is mainly arbitrary, rather than iconic.
- Linguistic sign: form and meaning
- Form: segmental and suprasegmental patterns,
- Meaning: referential and expressive (non-linguistic)
- Some examples of iconicity
- Sound symbolism: vowel height, segment sequences,
- Semantic/pragmatic prominence and position, stress
- Semantic relationship and relative position
- Semantic order and constituent order
- Visual languages
- Language includes a systematic, rule-governed
component (grammar) and
a list-like component (lexicon).
- All languages, including signed languages,
are equally efficient means of expressing thoughts.
In the same way, dialects within a language do not vary with respect to
their adequacy as means of communication, though they may be more or less
valued by people for non-linguistic reasons.
- Languages do not vary in their difficulty, at least not for children
learning them as first languages.
- Spoken language is more fundamental than written language.
- All normal people achieve roughly equal competence in a language.
- Languages are constantly changing.
- Language can be studied under several simplifying assumptions
- The differences between individual speakers can be ignored.
- Except for sequential order, time can be ignored.
- Historical change can be ignored (unless it is change we are interested
- Most of the time, production, comprehension, and acquisition data can
- Approaches: two poles
- The generative tradition
- Some names
- Noam Chomsky: Government and Binding, Principles and
- Lexical Functional Grammar
- Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar
- Relational Grammar
- Modularity: Language exists as a separate module
within the mind/brain. Different components of language, e.g.,
phonology and syntax, exist as separate modules within
language. Modules interact in relatively simple ways, and it is possible
to study them in isolation.
- Formal theories: Linguistic theories must be expressed in formal
terms to be taken seriously.
- Abstract analyses: underlying and surface representations,
- Context-independence: Language can usually be studied in isolation
from its context of use.
- Arbitrariness and explanation: Linguistic universals are arbitrary
properties of languages; they don't require any functional explanation.
- Innateness: All humans are
born with a Language
Device, which has Universal Grammar
built into it
- Data: grammaticality judgments
- The cognitive-functional tradition
- Language as a communicative system
- Language and cognition: Language can only be understood in the
context of the rest of cognition.
- Language in context
- Interaction within language: syntax and semantics, semantics
- Often less explicit theories
- Relatively surface-oriented analyses
- Functional explanations: communicative
factors, (memory and processing constraints)
- Role of experience in language acquisition: There may be no language
acquisition device as such.
- Data: (grammaticality judgments), transcriptions of real language
Some possibly confusing terms
- Language and dialect
- Correct, appropriate, grammatical, prestigious
- Grammar, rules