What Is Linguistics: An Introduction


When I was in about eighth or ninth grade I decide one day while attending the county fair up in the mountains where I lived that I was going to make up a language.  Now, being a semi-rural country boy, I mean, I was showing sheep and swine at the fair, I had no idea that this was actually a legitimate creative endeavor.  I mean, I guess I kind of knew about Klingon, but I always imagined Klingon as just a remnant of the greater Star Trek lore.  I wanted to make a language people might actually speak, like in the real world.  I called it “Trok,” being the language of truth.

I think I also subconsciously knew of the potential for any language to have a sort of spiritual or magical undertone.  I mean, a lot of magical work involves language and the structure and generation of expression, particularly in writing.  So to me, in a way, this was kind of an exercise in building a particular reality.

On a more practical note, I also understood implicitly that perhaps what language you spoke influenced how you thought.  That certain attitudes or conceptual perceptions of reality are embedded in the construction of a language in both its word choice and in its syntax.  This fascinated me.  Could I perhaps communicate a whole new way of looking at the world by constructing an alternative language?  There’s a whole world in a constructed language, and at the time I was particularly enamored with creating worlds.

I was a little discouraged when my compatriots didn’t seem to express as much interest in creating a language, and over the years I’ve started and revised the language in various jumps and starts, each with different foundations.  It’s now called “Chrahk”, and is now the “language of understanding.”

I have an ulterior motive in creating a new language this time around however.  I’ve decided, after my more recent failed attempts at creating a very powerful algorithm, that my programming efforts may be aimed at the wrong target.  It seems to me that rather than spend my life working on an algorithm that may very well be impossible I should spend my programming time on something that is a little more possible.  What I need is a mechanical mind, something that could potentially be “smarter” than me in various ways.  What I should be creating is an artificial intelligence.  However, creating something that can understand natural language alone is quite problematic, given the inconsistencies and ambiguities that any natural language contains.  But what if we created an artificial language that was as unambiguous as possible, and as consistent as possible?  If the computer could “learn” to process that language as it learned about the world, so to speak, then we’d have a consistent base line from which it could then begin to learn more “fuzzy” things.  An interesting proposal, but to create an artificial language we need to know… what makes up language?  How exactly does one study language?

What Is Meant By Linguistics?

Linguistics encompasses a very large field of inquiry ranging from the details of how we pronounce or make different sounds, to how whole words themselves are arranged in relation to the situational world around us.  In essence, linguistics is the study of language, both in its application, its generation, and its structure.  This endeavor is considered scientific, particularly the detailed study of sound generation, however because language is both at once applied and abstract much of the science lies in theory.

Linguistics goes back hundreds, if not more than a thousand years, in terms of our history.  It is definitely not a modern invention, as the earliest recorded documentation and analysis of language can be traced to the Indian grammarian Pāṇini, who lived and worked in the 4th century BCE.  He wrote up a work called the Aṣṭādhyāyī in which he laid out comples and intriguing rules for the Sanskrit language.  His work was later to be used or compared to much later formal languages work such as string-rewriting systems and the Backus-Naur Form, which I plan to cover in another tutorial.

What Linguistics Isn’t

There is a bit of a preconception that linguistics is trussed up and fancied grammar.  Many of us are familiar with the study of language we engaged in while we went through our academic paces when we were younger.  Much of this study was prescriptive, in the sense that, we learned what we were supposed to do.  We learned what was proper, and what was considered “wrong”.  If this then that, and such and such.  In my particular case the one I hated the most was when we were presented sentences in eighth grade and figure out what was “wrong” with them.  Basically, we had to apply all the rules we learned and make them proper.

Well, the heck with that!  Linguistics is actually not prescriptive in the sense that studies of “proper english” and “proper grammar” are.  Linguistics doesn’t really tell you exactly how something should be made up, but instead describes how language currently works.  Language is an always evolving beast and linguistics studies that change.  Linguistics is focused on how people communicate and talk, pragmatic and theoretical uses of the language.  Though linguistics may search for the construction of “proper sentences” it’s just as interested in the “improper” as well, if that’s what’s being used.  So in short linguistics is descriptive and not prescriptive.

What Makes Up The Study of Language

Linguistics is comprised of a number of “subfields” or branches as you might call them.  Each field focuses on a particular aspect or characteristic of language itself.  Language as we have come to know it consists of essentially a number of spoken sounds strung together to indicate some kind of significant meaning.  The act of speaking, and writing, this language comes so naturally that we don’t even think about it, until of course we try to learn a language we don’t know.  Imagine not knowing any language at all, like a baby, how would you approach studying and learning the whole idea?  What follows is a list of some of the branches of linguistics that can be seen as forming a sort of hierarchy (this list does not cover all the branches):

  • Phonetics is the study of the sounds of human speech, or their equivalent sign construction in sign language.
  • Phonology on the other hand is one “step up” from phonetics, and studies the organizational aspects of sound within language.  That is, for instance, how sounds are strung together and organized in a language and the relation of that organization to linguistic meaning.
  • Morphology goes a step beyond phonology, increasing its scope and awareness, and studies how words are formed as well as their relationships with other words of the same language.  This field is concerned with delineating parts of words, and the system which governs their construction.
  • If you “move up” one level in terms of scope, you get syntax.  Syntax is the study of the rules and processes with which one constructs sentences in a given language.  As you can see this is one step up from dealing with words and their constituents.  Syntax deals with how we can construct a particular sentence to mean a particular thing.
  • You might move from pragmatics to semantics then, which is the study of meaning, both linguistically and philosophically.  You can’t divorce linguistics, once you reach this high of a level of abstraction, from other considerations such as philosophy.  Semantics deals with the relationship between what are known as signifiers, and what they signify, that being a denotation.
  • Pragmatics on the other hand, is like semantics, but deals more with the environment in which a particular language may be spoken.  In this I mean the context in which a particular sentence may be being transmitted.  This context includes a priori information (assumptions), knowledge, things existing close by, and other such tools of overcoming ambiguity.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the fields and subfields that exist in linguistics, but it’s a good arc under which we can fit many more, smaller (but not less significant), branches.


“But what about grammar?” you might be wondering.  Yes, I didn’t include grammar in the list above because it’s not necessarily a specific branch in the sense of focusing on one particular thing.  Grammar focuses on the rules and principles that control the composition of a phrase in any given language.  Because of this it deals with words, phrases, clauses, composition, and many other different pieces of language.  It is built up out of many of the branches listed above, including phonology, morphology, and particularly syntax.

Many linguists today are what have come to be called “generativists”.  Generativists subscribe to, or build upon, generative grammars as developed in the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky.  When Chomsky first started developing his theories it was called transformational grammar, so you may still see that term around.  Chomsky has revised and further developed his theories into currently what is known as the minimalist program.  The minimalist program proposes the existence of a universal grammar that is innate to the human brain.  Pretty heady stuff!

Chomsky’s work has been particularly influential in formal language theory.  Formal languages are those that are not necessarily natural, but technical and artificial such as programming languages, or the “languages” of logic.  Chomsky elaborated on a list of increasingly complex grammars, and these are used to classify formal languages in many ways.  For example, many programming languages today are “context-free grammars,” following generation and parsing using such constructions using string-rewriting systems.

There many alternative approaches to grammar’s however, and one of these is constraint-based grammar.  A generative grammar lists lots of rules and steps for transforming some structure into another, until you get a well-formed sentence.  In this way it is a list of, if not one big, algorithm(s) aimed at getting a well-formed sentence, and only those sentences that can result from a given list of algorithms are considered well-formed.  Constraint-based grammar takes the opposite approach, and counts anything that is not otherwise constrained to be considered well-formed.  A constraint tells us what is not allowed, rather than how to necessarily generate what is allowed.

Other Grammars

Generative and constraint-based describe a type of grammar.  This means that there are many different grammars that fall at some point along this contrasting continuum.  Some of these grammars include dependency grammar, relational grammar, stochastic grammar, and so on.  The number of grammars available to a student of linguistics are hard to exhaust.

Dependency grammar, for instance, can be traced back to the work of Lucien Tesnière.  Dependency is the idea that words are connected to each other by directed links, with the verb taking to be the structural center.  All other words are either directly or indirectly connected to the verb, with these links called dependencies.

Relational grammars started as an alternative to the proposed transformational grammar.  Relational grammar is a syntactic theory stating that there are primitive grammatical relations that provide means towards stating rules in more syntactic universal terms.

Stochastic grammars are used in computational linguistics.  These are grammars that are mathematically based on statistical algorithms and devices which determine the grammatical structure of a sentence in probabilistic terms.  Stochastic grammars are useful in machine learning and natural language processing for computers.  Stochastic grammars are an instance of the type of interdisciplinary applications linguistics can have.

Applications of Linguistics

There are many applications and uses for the study of language.  Of particular interest these days is that of the processing of language by computational means.  This includes natural language processing, as well as speech processing and synthesis.  These types of applications fall mainly in interdisciplinary studies:

  • Computational Linguistics – This first interdisciplinary field is concerned with the statistical and otherwise rule-based modeling of natural language from a computational perspective.  Like the stochastic grammar above, much of the focus in this endeavor is on statistical analysis of language components.  Computational linguistics does not necessarily also deal with the computer “understanding” a sentence, being knowledge representation, but can encompass such an ideal.
  • Pyscholinguistics – This field combines the disciplines of psychology and linguistics in an effort to understand how humans acquire, use, comprehend and produce language at all.  It is concerned with the cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects of language, those being psychological and neurological.  This in essence is a study of how the brain processes and stores language.  Psycholinguistics might for instance study infant development and language acquisition, and also study in combination with the social sciences languages effect on human development.
  • Neurolinguistics – Very much akin to psycholinguistics, and in fact very much grew out of the movement, neurolinguistics is much more focused.  It is concerned with the the relationship between the neurological and biological workings of the brain and language.  For instance, one might inquire, is there one particular part or aspect of the brain that is responsible for language generation?  Neurolinguistics would provide the answer.
  • Linguistic Anthropology – This interdisciplinary field studies how language influences a population by examining how any particular language brings about social identities, culture, ideologies, and basic organizational development.

There are many applications of linguistics in many fields of inquiry.  Think of a discipline, and entertain how you might use linguistics, or the study of language and communication in it, and bam, you have applied linguistics.  The short list I have provided is not exhaustive, in fact I’ve left out forensic linguistics, language education, language acquisition, language development over time, etc.  But I wanted to give you an inkling of how linguistics can be applied to many different disciplines.

Language and Time

Another important aspect of linguistics is that languages change over time in small and sometimes large ways.  Linguists follow these developments and incorporate them into their work all the time.  For instance, the word “friend” in english has morphed over the years because of things like social networking.  Friending and unfriending have become verbs with their own weight and connotations.  It’s fascinating to think that in a couple hundred years we may not be speaking in any way like we used to speak.  Things like the internet and increase communication is bound to have an effect on the languages around the world, including English.

Conclusion and Further Reading

This article has only barely touched on what has become the sea of linguistics.  Linguistics can be an obscure study, which in some ways can make it exciting, as there are many frontiers still left to explore.  The iceberg that I’ve just stepped on includes the history of language, the history of linguistics, and and more.  Cognitive linguistics is a subfield or branch I didn’t touch upon, but offers a much different take on linguistics than Chomskyian generative or constraint grammars.  Other interesting distinctions exist in linguistics as well that didn’t fit into my introduction such as semiotics, and the work of Ferdinand de Saussure in his structural linguistics.

Linguistics is a deep field, and not necessarily an always well documented.  I’m looking forward to delving into further details of the study of linguistics particularly as it pertains to artificial language construction and artificial intelligence.  I hope this article was helpful in maybe clearing up or helping focus what linguistics means today, and that you found it useful.  Thanks for reading!

This post is part of a series within Asher Explains It All

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I'm just a wunk, trying to enjoy life. I am a cofounder of http//originalpursuitssoc.com/ and I like computers, code, creativity, and friends.

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