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Linguistics is the scientific study of language, encompassing a number of sub-fields. An important topical division is between the study of language structure ( grammar) and the study of meaning ( semantics). Grammar encompasses morphology (the formation and composition of words), syntax (the rules that determine how words combine into phrases and sentences) and phonology (the study of sound systems and abstract sound units). Phonetics is a related branch of linguistics concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds (phones), non-speech sounds, and how they are produced and perceived.

Over the twentieth century, following the work of Noam Chomsky, linguistics came to be dominated by the Generativist school, which is chiefly concerned with explaining how human beings acquire language and the biological constraints on this acquisition. Generative theory is modularist in character. While this remains the dominant paradigm, Chomsky's writings have also gathered much criticism. Other linguistic theories have increasingly gained popularity. Cognitive linguistics is a prominent example. There are many sub-fields in linguistics, which may or may not be dominated by a particular theoretical approach: evolutionary linguistics attempts to account for the origins of language; historical linguistics explores language change and sociolinguistics looks at the relation between linguistic variation and social structures.

A variety of intellectual disciplines are relevant to the study of language. Although certain linguists have downplayed the relevance of some other fields, linguistics — like other sciences — is highly interdisciplinary and draws on work from such fields as psychology, informatics, computer science, philosophy, biology, human anatomy, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, and acoustics.

Names for the discipline

Before the twentieth century (the word is first attested 1716), the term " philology" was commonly used to refer to the science of language, which was then predominately historical in focus. Since Ferdinand de Saussure's insistence on the importance of synchronic analysis, however, this focus has shifted and the term "philology" is now generally used for the "study of a language's grammar, history and literary tradition", especially in the USA., where it was never as popular as elsewhere in the sense "science of language". Though the term "linguist" in the sense "a student of language" dates from 1641, the term "linguistics" dates from 1847. It is now the usual academic term in English for the scientific study of language.

Fundamental concerns and divisions

Linguistics concerns itself with describing and explaining the nature of human language. Relevant to this are the questions of what is universal to language, how language can vary, and how human beings come to know languages. All humans (setting aside extremely pathological cases) achieve competence in whatever language is spoken (or signed, in the case of signed languages) around them when growing up, with apparently little need for explicit conscious instruction. While non-humans acquire their own communication systems, they do not acquire human language in this way (although many non-human animals can learn to respond to language, or can even be trained to use it to a degree). Therefore, linguists assume, the ability to acquire and use language is an innate, biologically-based potential of modern human beings, similar to the ability to walk. There is no consensus, however, as to the extent of this innate potential, or its domain-specificity (the degree to which such innate abilities are specific to language), with some theorists claiming that there is a very large set of highly abstract and specific binary settings coded into the human brain, while others claim that the ability to learn language is a product of general human cognition. It is, however, generally agreed that there are no strong genetic differences underlying the differences between languages: an individual will acquire whatever language(s) they are exposed to as a child, regardless of parentage or ethnic origin.

Linguistic structures are pairings of meaning and form (which may consist of sound patterns, movements of the hand, written symbols, and so on); such pairings are known as Saussurean signs. Linguists may specialize in some sub-area of linguistic structure, which can be arranged in the following terms, from form to meaning:

  • Phonetics, the study of the physical properties of speech (or signed) production and perception
  • Phonology, the study of sounds (adjusted appropriately for signed languages) as discrete, abstract elements in the speaker's mind that distinguish meaning
  • Morphology, the study of internal structures of words and how they can be modified
  • Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences
  • Semantics, the study of the meaning of words ( lexical semantics) and fixed word combinations ( phraseology), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences
  • Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used (literally, figuratively, or otherwise) in communicative acts
  • Discourse analysis, the analysis of language use in texts (spoken, written, or signed)

Many linguists would agree that these divisions overlap considerably, and the independent significance of each of these areas is not universally acknowledged. Regardless of any particular linguist's position, each area has core concepts that foster significant scholarly inquiry and research.

Intersecting with these domains are fields arranged around the kind of external factors that are considered. For example

  • Linguistic typology, the study of the common properties of diverse unrelated languages, properties that may, given sufficient attestation, be assumed to be innate to human language capacity.
  • Stylistics, the study of linguistic factors that place a discourse in context.
  • Developmental linguistics, the study of the development of linguistic ability in an individual, particularly the acquisition of language in childhood.
  • Historical linguistics or Diachronic linguistics, the study of language change.
  • Language geography, the study of the spatial patterns of languages.
  • Evolutionary linguistics, the study of the origin and subsequent development of language.
  • Psycholinguistics, the study of the cognitive processes and representations underlying language use.
  • Sociolinguistics, the study of social patterns and norms of linguistic variability.
  • Clinical linguistics, the application of linguistic theory to the area of Speech-Language Pathology.
  • Neurolinguistics, the study of the brain networks that underlie grammar and communication.
  • Biolinguistics, the study of natural as well as human-taught communication systems in animals compared to human language.
  • Computational linguistics, the study of computational implementations of linguistic structures.
  • Applied linguistics, the study of language related issues applied in everyday life, notably language. policies, planning, and education. Constructed language fits under Applied linguistics.

The related discipline of semiotics investigates the relationship between signs and what they signify. From the perspective of semiotics, language can be seen as a sign or symbol, with the world as its representation.

Variation and universality

Much modern linguistic research, particularly within the paradigm of generative grammar, has concerned itself with trying to account for differences between languages of the world. This has worked on the assumption that if human linguistic ability is narrowly constrained by human biology, then all languages must share certain fundamental properties.

In generativist theory, the collection of fundamental properties all languages share are referred to as universal grammar (UG). The specific characteristics of this universal grammar are a much debated topic. Typologists and non-generativist linguists usually refer simply to language universals, or universals of language.

Similarities between languages can have a number of different origins. In the simplest case, universal properties may be due to universal aspects of human experience. For example, all humans experience water, and all human languages have a word for water. Other similarities may be due to common descent: the Latin language spoken by the Ancient Romans developed into Spanish in Spain and Italian in Italy; similarities between Spanish and Italian are thus in many cases due to both being descended from Latin. In other cases, contact between languages — particularly where many speakers are bilingual — can lead to much borrowing of structures, as well as words. Similarity may also, of course, be due to coincidence. English much and Spanish mucho are not descended from the same form or borrowed from one language to the other; nor is the similarity due to innate linguistic knowledge (see False cognate).

Arguments in favour of language universals have also come from documented cases of sign languages (such as Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language) developing in communities of congenitally deaf people, independently of spoken language. The properties of these sign languages conform generally to many of the properties of spoken languages. Other known and suspected sign language isolates include Kata Kolok, Nicaraguan Sign Language, and Providence Island Sign Language.


Ferdinand de Saussure

It has been perceived that languages tend to be organized around grammatical categories such as noun and verb, nominative and accusative, or present and past, though, importantly, not exclusively so. The grammar of a language is organized around such fundamental categories, though many languages express the relationships between words and syntax in other discrete ways (cf. some Bantu languages for noun/verb relations, ergative/absolutive systems for case relations, several Native American languages for tense/aspect relations).

In addition to making substantial use of discrete categories, language has the important property that it organizes elements into recursive structures; this allows, for example, a noun phrase to contain another noun phrase (as in “the chimpanzee’s lips”) or a clause to contain a clause (as in “I think that it’s raining”). Though recursion in grammar was implicitly recognized much earlier (for example by Jespersen), the importance of this aspect of language became more popular after the 1957 publication of Noam Chomsky’s book “ Syntactic Structures”, - that presented a formal grammar of a fragment of English. Prior to this, the most detailed descriptions of linguistic systems were of phonological or morphological systems.

Chomsky used a context-free grammar augmented with transformations. Since then, following the trend of Chomskyan linguistics, context-free grammars have been written for substantial fragments of various languages (for example GPSG, for English), but it has been demonstrated that human languages include cross-serial dependencies, which cannot be handled adequately by context-free grammars.

Some selected sub-fields

Diachronic linguistics

Studying languages at a particular point in time (usually the present) is "synchronic", while diachronic linguistics examines how language changes through time, sometimes over centuries. It enjoys both a rich history and a strong theoretical foundation for the study of language change.

In universities in the United States, the non-historic perspective is often out of fashion. The shift in focus to a non-historic perspective started with Saussure and became pre-dominant with Noam Chomsky.

Explicitly historical perspectives include historical-comparative linguistics and etymology.

Contextual linguistics

Contextual linguistics may include the study of linguistics in interaction with other academic disciplines. The interdisciplinary areas of linguistics consider how language interacts with the rest of the world.

Sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and linguistic anthropology are seen as areas that bridge the gap between linguistics and society as a whole.

Psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics relate linguistics to the medical sciences.

Other cross-disciplinary areas of linguistics include evolutionary linguistics, computational linguistics and cognitive science.

Applied linguistics

Linguists are largely concerned with finding and describing the generalities and varieties both within particular languages and among all language. Applied linguistics takes the result of those findings and “applies” them to other areas. Often “applied linguistics” refers to the use of linguistic research in language teaching, but results of linguistic research are used in many other areas, as well.

Today in the age of information technology, many areas of applied linguistics attempt to involve the use of computers. Speech synthesis and speech recognition use phonetic and phonemic knowledge to provide voice interfaces to computers. Applications of computational linguistics in machine translation, computer-assisted translation, and natural language processing are areas of applied linguistics which have come to the forefront. Their influence has had an effect on theories of syntax and semantics, as modeling syntactic and semantic theories on computers constraints.

Description and prescription

Linguistics is descriptive; linguists describe and explain features of language without making subjective judgments on whether a particular feature is "right" or "wrong". This is analogous to practice in other sciences: a zoologist studies the animal kingdom without making subjective judgments on whether a particular animal is better or worse than another.

Prescription, on the other hand, is an attempt to promote particular linguistic usages over others, often favouring a particular dialect or " acrolect". This may have the aim of establishing a linguistic standard, which can aid communication over large geographical areas. It may also, however, be an attempt by speakers of one language or dialect to exert influence over speakers of other languages or dialects (see Linguistic imperialism). An extreme version of prescriptivism can be found among censors, who attempt to eradicate words and structures which they consider to be destructive to society.

Speech and writing

Most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken (or signed) language is more fundamental than written language. This is because:

  • Speech appears to be a human "universal", whereas there have been many cultures and speech communities that lack written communication;
  • Speech evolved before human beings discovered writing;
  • People learn to speak and process spoken languages more easily and much earlier than writing;

Linguists nonetheless agree that the study of written language can be worthwhile and valuable. For research that relies on corpus linguistics and computational linguistics, written language is often much more convenient for processing large amounts of linguistic data. Large corpora of spoken language are difficult to create and hard to find, and are typically transcribed and written. Additionally, linguists have turned to text-based discourse occurring in various formats of computer-mediated communication as a viable site for linguistic inquiry.

The study of writing systems themselves is in any case considered a branch of linguistics.


Some of the earliest linguistic activities can be recalled from Iron Age India with the analysis of Sanskrit. The Pratishakhyas (from ca. the 8th century BC) constitute as it were a proto-linguistic ad hoc collection of observations about mutations to a given corpus particular to a given Vedic school. Systematic study of these texts gives rise to the Vedanga discipline of Vyakarana, the earliest surviving account of which is the work of Pānini (c. 520 – 460 BC), who, however, looks back on what are probably several generations of grammarians, whose opinions he occasionally refers to. Pānini formulates close to 4,000 rules which together form a compact generative grammar of Sanskrit. Inherent in his analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme and the root. Due to its focus on brevity, his grammar has a highly unintuitive structure, reminiscent of contemporary "machine language" (as opposed to "human readable" programming languages).

Indian linguistics maintained a high level for several centuries; Patanjali in the 2nd century BC still actively criticizes Panini. In the later centuries BC, however, Panini's grammar came to be seen as prescriptive, and commentators came to be fully dependent on it. Bhartrihari (c. 450 – 510) theorized the act of speech as being made up of four stages: first, conceptualization of an idea, second, its verbalization and sequencing (articulation) and third, delivery of speech into atmospheric air, the interpretation of speech by the listener, the interpreter.

In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760, in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book he distinguished phonetics from phonology.

Western linguistics begins in Classical Antiquity with grammatical speculation such as Plato's Cratylus.

Sir William Jones noted that Sanskrit shared many common features with classical Latin and Greek, notably verb roots and grammatical structures, such as the case system. This led to the theory that all languages sprung from a common source and to the discovery of the Indo-European language family. He began the study of comparative linguistics, which would uncover more language families and branches.

Some early-19th-century linguists were Jakob Grimm, who devised a principle of consonantal shifts in pronunciation – known as Grimm's Law – in 1822; Karl Verner, who formulated Verner's Law; August Schleicher, who created the "Stammbaumtheorie" ("family tree"); and Johannes Schmidt, who developed the "Wellentheorie" ("wave model") in 1872.

Ferdinand de Saussure was the founder of modern structural linguistics. Edward Sapir, a leader in American structural linguistics, was one of the first who explored the relations between language studies and anthropology. His methodology had strong influence on all his successors. Noam Chomsky's formal model of language, transformational-generative grammar, developed under the influence of his teacher Zellig Harris, who was in turn strongly influenced by Leonard Bloomfield, has been the dominant model since the 1960s.

Noam Chomsky remains a pop-linguistic figure. Linguists (working in frameworks such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) or Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG)) are increasingly seen to stress the importance of formalization and formal rigor in linguistic description, and may distance themselves somewhat from Chomsky's more recent work (the "Minimalist" program for Transformational grammar), connecting more closely to his earlier works.

Other linguists working in Optimality Theory state generalizations in terms of violable constraints that interact with each other, and abandon the traditional rule-based formalism first pioneered by early work in generativist linguistics. Functionalist linguists working in functional grammar and Cognitive Linguistics tend to stress the non-autonomy of linguistic knowledge and the non-universality of linguistic structures, thus differing significantly from the Chomskyan school. They reject Chomskyan intuitive introspection as a scientific method, relying instead on typological evidence.


Anthropological linguistics, Semiotics, Philology, Discourse, Structuralism, Post-structuralism, Cognitive linguistics, Cognitive science, Comparative linguistics, Sociolinguistics, Varieties, Developmental linguistics, Discourse Analysis, Descriptive linguistics, Ecolinguistics, Embodied cognition, Endangered languages

Branches and fields

History of linguistics, Historical linguistics, Intercultural competence, Lexicography/ Lexicology, Linguistic typology, Evolutionary linguistics

Articulatory phonology, Biolinguistics, Computational linguistics, Biosemiotics, Articulatory synthesis, Machine translation, Natural language processing, Speaker recognition (authentication), Speech processing, Speech recognition, Speech synthesis, Concept Mining, Corpus linguistics, Critical discourse analysis, Cryptanalysis, Decipherment, Asemic writing, Grammar Writing

Forensic linguistics, Global language system, Glottometrics, Integrational linguistics, International Linguistic Olympiad, Language acquisition, Language attrition, Language engineering, Language geography, Metacommunicative competence, Natural Language Processing, Neurolinguistics, Orthography, Reading, Second language acquisition, Sociocultural linguistics, Stratificational linguistics, Text linguistics, Writing systems, Xenolinguistics.

Popular works and texts

  • What is I-language? - Chapter 1 of I-language: An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science.
  • David Crystal - Linguistics; The Stories of English; The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language (1987). Cambridge University Press. ; A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (1991) Blackwell ( ISBN 0-631-17871-6); An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Language and Languages (1992) Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (2006), The Language Instinct Debate, Continuum International, ( ISBN 0-8264-7385-7) - challenges the fundamental assumptions of Pinker's The Language Instinct, the two together illustrate one of the most significant debates within the field of theoretical linguistics in the early 21st century.
  • Pinker, Steven - The Language Instinct (2000), repr ed., Perennial. ( ISBN 0-06-095833-2); Words and Rules (2000), Perennial. ( ISBN 0-06-095840-5)
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de (1916,1998), Cours de linguistique générale (Course in general linguistics) Open Court. ( ISBN 0-812-69023-0)
  • Chomsky, Noam, (1965), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax; Syntactic Structures; On Language
  • Bloomfield, Leonard (1933,1984), Language, University of Chicago Press ( ISBN 0-226-06067-5)
  • Burgess, Anthony - Language Made Plain (1964); A Mouthful of Air (1992)
  • Deacon, Terrence (1998), The Symbolic Species, WW Norton & Co. ( ISBN 0-393-31754-4)
  • Deutscher, Guy (2005), The Unfolding of Language, Metropolitan Books ( ISBN 0-8050-7907-6) ( ISBN 978-0-8050-7907-4)
  • Harrison, K. David. (2007) When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press. ( ISBN 0-195-18192-1)
  • Hayakawa, Alan R & S. I. (1990), Language in Thought and Action, Harvest. ( ISBN 0-15-648240-1)
  • Rymer, Russ (1992), Annals of Science in " The New Yorker", 13 April
  • Sapir, Edward (1921), " Language: An introduction to the study of speech (Gutenberg.Org)", New York: Harcourt, Brace and company.
  • White, Lydia (1992), Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press. ( ISBN 0-521-79647-4)
  • Aitchison, Jean (1999) [1995]. Linguistics: An Introduction (2nd ed.). London: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Akmajian, Adrian (2001). Linguistics. et al. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-51123-1.
  • Griniewicz, Sergiusz; Elwira M. Dubieniec (2004). Introduction To Linguistics (2nd ed.). Białystok, WSFiZ. pp. 91.
  • Hudson, G. (2000) Essential Introductory Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Jackson, Howard. (2007), Key Terms in Linguistics, Continuum. ( ISBN 0-82-648742-4)
  • Lyons, John (1995), Linguistic Semantics, Cambridge University Press. ( ISBN 0-521-43877-2)
  • Napoli, Donna J. (2003) Language Matters. A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language. Oxford University Press.
  • O'Grady, William D., Michael Dobrovolsky & Francis Katamba [eds.] (2001), Contemporary Linguistics, Longman. ( ISBN 0-582-24691-1) - Lower Level
  • Ohio State University Department of Linguistics. (2007) Language Files (10th ed.). Ohio State University Press.
  • Taylor, John R. (2003), Cognitive Grammar, Oxford University Press. ( ISBN 0-19-870033-4)
  • Trask, R. L. (1995) Language: The Basics. London: Routledge.
  • Ungerer, Friedrich & Hans-Jorg Schmid (1996), An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Longman. ( ISBN 0-582-23966-4)
  • Fauconnier, Gilles - Mental Spaces (1995), 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press. ( ISBN 0-521-44949-9); Mappings in Thought and Language (1997), Cambridge University Press. ( ISBN 0-521-59953-9); & Mark Turner The Way We Think (2003), Basic Books ( ISBN 0-465-08786-8); Rymer, p. 48, quoted in Fauconnier and Turner, p. 353
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (1982), Schools of Linguistics, Stanford University Press. ( ISBN 0-8047-1125-9)
  • Skinner, B.F. (1957), Verbal Behaviour. Copley Publishing Group. ( ISBN 0-87411-591-4)
  • Sweetser, Eve (1992), From Etymology to Pragmatics, repr ed., Cambridge University Press. ( ISBN 0-521-42442-9)
  • Van Orman Quine, Willard (1960), Word and Object, MIT Press. ( ISBN 0-262-67001-1)
  • Aronoff, Mark & Janie Rees-Miller (Eds.) (2003) The Handbook of Linguistics. Blackwell Publishers. ( ISBN 1-4051-0252-7)
  • Asher, R. (Ed.) (1993) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 10 vols.
  • Bright, William (Ed) (1992) International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford University Press. 4 Vols.
  • Brown, Keith R. (Ed.) (2005) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2nd ed.). Elsevier. 14 vols.
  • Bussmann, H. (1996) Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics. Routledge (translated from German).
  • Chakrabarti, Byomkes(India, 1923–1981), Santali language, Bengali language, comparative linguistics
  • Graffi, G. 2001 - Two years of syntax (A Critical Survey), Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2001.
  • Frawley, William (Ed.) (2003) International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press
  • Malmkjaer, Kirsten (1991) The Linguistics Encyclopaedia. Routledge ( ISBN 0-415-22210-9)
  • Trask, R. L. - A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics (1993). Routledge. ( ISBN 0-415-08628-0); Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology (1996). Routledge.; A student's dictionary of language and linguistics. (1997); 'Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics (1999). London: Routledge.

Literature and art exploring linguistic themes

  • Night and Day (1979) - Tom Stoppard
  • The Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh


  • An Academic Linguistics Forum
  • Lingvoforum - Forum for linguists in Russian
  • Glottopedia, MediaWiki-based encyclopedia of linguistics, under construction
  • Bible Translation and linguistics
  • The Virtual Linguistics Campus
  • Linguistic sub-fields - according to the Linguistic Society of America
  • The Linguist List, a global online linguistics community with news and information updated daily.
  • Glossary of linguistic terms
  • French<->English glossary at SIL International
  • "Linguistics" section - A Bibliography of Literary Theory, Criticism and Philology, ed. J. A. García Landa (University of Zaragoza, Spain)
  • Linguistics and language-related wiki articles on Scholarpedia and Citizendium
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