What is linguistics?

Definition of linguistics?

Human language has been a topic of study for a long time. But the study of language in a scientific way is quite a new discipline. Started by de Saussure, linguistics can be defined as “the scientific study of language.” By scientific, it is meant studying language in the same way a chemist or a physicist studies chemistry or physics. That is without prejudices, observing, hypothesizing, testing hypotheses and refining results according to evidence collected.

Diachronic versus synchronic linguistics

Many distinctions have been identified in linguistics. Ferdinand De Saussure, for instance, distinguishes between diachronic and synchronic linguistics. The first refers to the study of language change. It is also called historical linguistics. Synchronic linguistics, however, focuses on the state of language at a particular time.  It attempts to study the general principles that govern language and to identify the characteristics of human language as a phenomenon.  Synchronic linguistics is also referred to as general or theoretical linguistics. De Saussure is thus known as the father of modern linguistics. He  brought about the shift from diachronic to synchronic analysis.

A brief history

Before the 19th century, language practitioners were concerned, on the one hand with the study of language for prescriptive reasons, to distinguish the wrong sentences from the right ones. On the other hand, philologists made attempts to study language historically. They were concerned with mapping the world’s languages. That is, they tried to determine the relationships between languages (both spoken languages and extinct ones) so as to fit them into the jigsaw puzzle of the world’s complex pattern of linguistic distribution. It was only until Later, in the 19th, century that premises of linguistics as a scientific discipline made its way.

With the publication of de Saussure’s book Course in General Linguistics (published posthumously by his students in 1916), the discipline acquired the necessary tools to give better accounts of the linguistic phenomenon. In fact de Saussure introduced an approach that put emphasis on language as a static system of structures. Hence, the name of the approach he initiated, Structuralism. It had its days during the 1940s and 1960s. It was an approach that focused on the analysis of surface structures using discovery procedures without reference to meaning or any deep structures as this was considered unscientific.  The method used relied on identifying the relations between the different units in the surface structure. The emphasis is generally on the classification of units and structures. Structuralism is often referred to, pejoratively, as taxonomic linguistics.

When Noam Chomsky published Syntactic structures in 1957, a more profound study of language emerged. The study of surface structures has become secondary compared to an analysis that takes into account the native speaker’s instinctive knowledge of the language he or she speaks. Instead of just classifying the elements of language, linguistic study has become concerned with describing and explaining the linguistic phenomenon. Grammar must be powerful enough to describe if not to explain why a child is able to produce an infinite number of sentences he or she has never heard of before. Based on a finite set of linguistic elements, such as phonemes and morphemes a native speaker can generate (hence, the term generative grammar) an unlimited number of sentences, making the scope of linguistics even larger than the structuralists had ever envisioned. The grammar that the linguist seeks in his study must reflect the native speaker’s linguistic competence as opposed to linguistic performance, which refers to the actual utterances of the speaker.

Chomsky’s Ideas were later criticized for excluding the study of features of performance. It is believed now that the boundaries between competence and performance are not that clearly cut. Features of communication cannot be accounted for by generativists. For this reason  new horizons in linguistics appeared and new discipline came into being. Some of them are listed below:

  • Sociolinguistics
  • Pragmatics
  • Discourse analysis

All of these disciplines are concerned with language use, putting emphasis on the context. In other words and, they focus on how utterances communicate meaning in context which is impossible to account for in generative grammar.

Other approaches attempt to study language not only at the level of the sentence, but also at a larger level. Text linguistics, for example, studies texts as communication systems, uncovering and describing what has become known as text grammar. It is a grammar that takes into consideration the general principles governing text and their communicative aspect.  A text linguist takes into account both the communicative context of the author of a text and that of the addressee.

Later psycholinguistics has become concerned with the psychological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, comprehend and produce language. It has benefitted from the achievements of many other disciples such as linguistics, neurology, biology and cognitive science.

To sum up, the study of language has evolved from purely prescriptive dimensions, that is to distinguish between what is wrong from what is right, to more profound perspectives that take into consideration speakers abilities to produce language. A whole set of concepts have been introduced to account for language use, including speakers linguistic competence as well as other features involved in the production of actual utterances within a social context .

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