What is Linguistics?

Linguistics is the study of language - how it is put together and how it functions. Various building blocks of different types and sizes are combined to make up a language. Sounds are brought together and sometimes when this happens, they change their form and do interesting things. Words are arranged in a certain order, and sometimes the beginnings and endings of the words are changed to adjust the meaning. Then the meaning itself can be affected by the arrangement of words and by the knowledge of the speaker about what the hearer will understand. Linguistics is the study of all of this. There are various branches of linguistics which are given their own name, some of which are described below. Linguists are people who study linguistics.

Phonetics is the study of the sounds of speech. It includes understanding how sounds are made using the mouth, nose, teeth and tongue, and also understanding how the ear hears those sounds and can tell them apart. A study of phonetics involves practicing producing (sometimes exotic) sounds, and figuring out which sound you heard. The wave form of each sound can be analysed with the help of computer programs. In sign language, phonetics refers to the the possible shapes, movements and use of physical space.

Phonology makes use of the phonetics in order to see how sounds or signs are arranged in a system for each language. In phonology, it matters whether sounds are contrastive or not, that is, whether substituting one sound for another gives a different, or "contrastive," meaning. For example in English, [r] and [l] are two different sounds - and the words "road" and "load" differ according to which of these sounds is used. But in some languages, [r] and [l] are variations of the same sound. They could never make a meaning difference in words that differ by only that sound. Phonologists describe the contrastive consonants and vowels in a language, and how pronunciation is affected by the position of the sound in the word and the sounds that are nearby. They are also interested in syllables, phrases, rhythm, tone, and intonation.

Morphology looks at how individual words are formed from smaller chunks of meaningful units called morphemes. For example, the English word 'untied' is really made up of three parts, one refering to the process of reversing an action (un-), one indicating the action of twisting stringlike things together so they stay (tie), and the last indicating that the action happened in the past (-d). Many languages have a much more complex way of putting words together. Morphology interacts in important ways with both phonology (bringing sounds together can cause them to change) and syntax, which needs to pay attention to the form of a word when it combines it with other words.

Syntax is the study of how phrases, clauses and sentences are constructed and combined in particular languages. Writing a grammar requires defining the rules that govern the structure of the sentences of the language. Such rules involve both the order of words, and the form of words in their various possible positions. There are common patterns among even unrelated languages, and many linguists believe this is the result of general principles which apply to most, if not all, languages. For example, languages where the direct object generally follows the verb have a lot of things in common, in contrast to the things in common held by languages in which the direct object generally precedes the verb.

Discourse analysis looks at bigger chunks of language - texts, conversations, stories, speeches, etc. Different types of these use language differently, and there can even be differences in how a language is used based on the genre. For example, "Once upon a time" is an appropriate start to a fairy tale, but not to a news story on the evening news. Discourse features can also show important principles of organization such as which players in a story have key roles and which just have bit parts.

Semantics is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between words, phrases and other bits of language and on how these words and phrases connect to the world. Pragmatics is similar, but it involves the study of how speakers of a language use the language to communicate and accomplish what they want. Pragmatics looks more at the relationship between speaker and listener which allows assumptions to be made about the intended message, considering, for example, the way context contributes to meaning. A classic example is where someone is asked "Do you want some coffee?" Does the reply "Coffee will keep me awake" mean yes or no? It depends whether the person wants to stay awake - and the questioner will only understand the intended meaning if they know whether the person wants to stay awake. 

Historical Linguistics is the study of how languages have changed over time. Some changes happen because of slow (maybe incremental) changes within the language, such as in pronunciation or in the meaning of a word. Other changes happen because of contact with speakers of other languages. The most well know example of this is "borrowing," but language contact can cause other types of change as well. It can be interesting to compare phonology, syntax and word lists of similar or geographically close languages to see how similar they are. Some linguists then use this information to figure out the past of the languages, such as when two languages split from each other. Combined with other known facts about the speakers of the language, it can lead to important discoveries about their history.

Sociolinguistics is the study of society and language. Sociolinguists may use surveys to examine in which contexts a language is used (e.g. market, home, school, workplace) and the attitudes to each language (particularly in multilingual contexts). They may look at ways that variation in a particular language correlates with social factors such as speaker age, ethnic identity, location, etc. For more information on sociolinguistics, see here.