Linguistics is the study of language. Because linguists disagree on the scope of “language,” definitions of linguistics have varied. Descriptively, the study of language has gone from a search for relationships between specific languages to current interest in the biological bases for language and in language use. Methodologically, linguistics has changed from an empirical discipline to one admitting a priori suppositions and personal introspection in model building.
Regardless of theoretical bent, students of language generally divide linguistic inquiry with respect to several conceptual parameters. Linguists distinguish between looking at language at a specific moment in time (synchronically) as opposed to tracing historical language change (diachronically). A second parameter decomposes language into multiple levels for analysis: phonology (sounds), morphology (units of meaning that combine to form words), and syntax (how words are combined to form sentences). In addition, linguistics entails semantics (word and sentence meaning), discourse analysis (connected speech), and pragmatics (language structure and meaning in nonlinguistic context).
Language, Semiotics, and Communication
In defining “language,” it is useful to understand the relationship between language and other systems of signs in which material forms (such as a yawn or the Italian word grazie) are paired with meanings (here, “I’m tired” or “thank you”). The broadest domain for studying signs and their meanings is semiotics (literally, “the study of signs”). Semiotics includes the analysis of human languages, but it also encompasses animal communication and inanimate signs (e.g., a cloudy sky portending rain). The other end of the spectrum of sign-based inquiry is linguistics, traditionally limited to human spoken languages.
Less clearly defined is the middle ground: communication. Conventionally, communication includes all meaningful behavior emitted and perceived by sentient beings, including animal communication and human languages. However, linguists disagree over which particular forms of communication also constitute language. One issue is whether only the speech stream counts as language or whether such paralinguistic features as kinesics (body language) and proxemics (physical distance between interlocutors) belong to linguistics proper. Another issue has been whether language includes writing and the sign languages of hearing-impaired communities.
The Evolution of Linguistic Theory
The roots of modern linguistics trace back to a lecture delivered in Calcutta in 1786. Sir William Jones, a British judge serving in India, hypothesized that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin must all have sprung from a common source – what today we call Indo-European. In the mid-nineteenth century, Jacob Grimm explained how German phonology systematically differed from the sound systems of such languages as Latin and Sanskrit. Soon thereafter, the Junggrammatiker (neogrammarians) created a linguistic research agenda for comparing languages in the Indo-European family, predominantly focusing on phonology. By the early twentieth century, linguistics had largely become the diachronic study of Indo-European sound systems.
Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss neogrammarian, moved linguistics from a strictly historical enterprise to also exploring modern language structure. Saussure was heavily influenced by the growing movement of structural approaches to social phenomena, appearing, for example, in the work of the sociologist Émile Durkheim. Structuralism sought to discover how social systems work as wholes that are organizationally greater than the sum of their individual parts. Saussure used this model to analyze language as a system of signs. Saussure’s analysis of linguistic signs remains foundational in the field of semiotics and influential in social, literary, and cultural theory.
Contemporaneous with Saussure, the newly emerging field of anthropology found language to be an important tool for understanding nonwestern cultures. Bronislaw Malinowski’s work on the construction of meaning among indigenous peoples of the western Pacific provided a framework for subsequent British anthropological linguistics such as the work of J. R. Firth. In America, Franz Boas used his analyses of Native American languages to argue that their speakers had sophisticated cultures and could not be dismissed as “primitive peoples.” Building upon Boas’ initiatives, a linguistic tradition grew up in the US during the first half of the twentieth century, alternatively known as American Structuralism or American Descriptivism. This tradition strove to create research methodologies for uncovering the structure of unwritten languages. Rooted in empiricism, American Structuralists admitted as data only those spoken utterances that had been observed. Practitioners included Leonard Bloomfield, Charles Hockett, and Zellig Harris – Noam Chomsky’s friend and teacher.
In the mid-1950s, Chomsky proposed a new goal for linguistic theory. Rather than using empirical evidence to “discover” the structure of languages, Chomsky drew upon his background in philosophy to create a rationalist approach to linguistic theory. Chomsky’s aim was to explain the intrinsic linguistic abilities of native speakers, using introspection in lieu of discovery methods and attempting to characterize the knowledge of “ideal speaker/ hearers” rather than the empirical productions of real-world language users. Following René Descartes, Chomsky argued that language is uniquely human (thereby excluding animal communication from linguistics). He also maintained that human language is sufficiently complex that it cannot be learned by beginning with a blank mental slate. Rather, the core of linguistic abilities must be biologically innate. Given his interests and presuppositions, Chomsky took linguistics to be the study of abstract linguistic knowledge, especially of syntax. Chomsky did not deem language use part of linguistic inquiry.
Over the past half-century, Chomsky’s original model (known alternatively as transformational grammar or generative-transformational grammar) has strongly shaped linguistic research internationally. Yet during this same period, a number of social scientists eschewed the Chomskian limitation of linguistics to abstract human linguistic ability. The field of sociolinguistics emerged in the 1970s, represented by such practitioners as Dell Hymes and William Labov, who argued that linguistics must include the study of language in social context. The field of child language acquisition was redefined in the 1970s and 1980s, as psychologists and linguists such as Jerome Bruner, M. A. K. Halliday, and Jean Berko-Gleason reasoned that children learn language not as a standalone system but in social context and for social reasons.
A second major challenge to Chomskian linguistics came from psychologists and linguists, who argued that nonhuman primates possess many of the linguistic abilities Chomsky assumed unique to Homo sapiens. From the sign-language-based studies of the chimpanzee Washoe (by Allen and Beatrice Gardner) to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s use of symbol boards and spoken language recognition with Kanzi (a bonobo chimpanzee), a cadre of researchers argued that linguistics should include the communicative behavior of at least the broader primate family.
Current Directions in Linguistics
Today, ideological battles have largely been replaced by a proliferation of approaches to linguistics. The number of free-standing linguistics departments in universities has historically been small. Linguists are commonly housed in foreign language or English departments, in anthropology or sociology, in education or computer science, and often adopt the perspectives of their disciplinary homes. More importantly, since no individual has emerged with the visionary stature of Chomsky, linguists have little impetus to align themselves with a specific model of language or definition of linguistics.
That said, there is no shortage of scholars who employ linguistic theories and methodologies. The following three broad areas of inquiry illustrate the contemporary linguistic enterprise. Social discourse: continuing the anthropological tradition of studying language in social context, sociolinguistic research often centers on discourse, specifically considering gender, age, ethnic, or class-based differences in language use. Sociolinguistic perspectives are also widely employed in such domains as first-language acquisition, secondlanguage acquisition, bilingualism, and cross-cultural communication. Writing and technology: interest in writing as a linguistic process, distinct from speech, has grown in recent decades. Linguists such as Roy Harris, Deborah Tannen, Wallace Chafe, and Douglas Biber have examined written language both as a medium in its own right and in comparison to speech. Linguistics has also become a tool in the hands of researchers studying language conveyed via computer systems such as the Internet (known as computer-mediated communication, CMC). Linguistic analyses of chat, email, instant messaging, and text messaging on mobile phones complement sociological studies of how people use these messaging systems. Artificial intelligence, cognition, and language: with the unfolding of artificial intelligence research in the 1960s and 1970s, linguistics became a valuable instrument for processing natural language (i.e., using computers to analyze spoken or written sentences) and for performing machine translation between languages. Given the importance of global communication, along with the explosive growth of the Internet, both natural language processing and machine translation will continue to be important research issues for the foreseeable future.
The 1990s witnessed a surge of interest in the neurological bases of language. With the development of sophisticated imaging technology, it is possible to measure brain activity while subjects are performing linguistic tasks. This research has, for example, yielded neurological evidence for differences in the way speakers of English produce regular past-tense forms (e.g., walked) vs irregular forms (e.g., went), and has suggested gender variation in language processing, as well as neurological distinctions between bilinguals and monolinguals.
Language in Socio-Political Context
While roughly 6,000 different languages are spoken today, the number continues to decline as new speakers born into minority-language communities eschew learning ancestral languages and remaining speakers die out. Linguists have begun partnering with social activists to document and support endangered languages. At the same time, others are questioning the dominant role that former colonial languages, especially English, are playing on the global stage. Now that non-native speakers of English outnumber native speakers, a growing number of voices argue for replacing the notion of “world English” with that of “world Englishes.” Moreover, some argue that non-native speakers should have primary say in defining the linguistic make-up of those Englishes, rather than adhering to prevailing British or American English norms. These attitudes are increasingly reflected in the way that English is taught to speakers of other languages. In recent years, the emphasis has shifted from concentrating on correct grammar to nurturing communicative abilities. Similarly, there is a move away from accent reduction and toward teaching for phonological intelligibility.
Beyond its core function of enabling people to communicate with one another, language is always potentially a political tool. A century ago, the issue was imposition of colonial languages upon subjugated populations. Today the range of political concerns includes sexist or racist language, along with policies regarding bilingual education and the status of national languages. Regardless of one’s theoretical stance about the proper scope of the field, linguistics offers a powerful instrument for addressing these real-world problems.
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