What is Linguistics – Let’s talk about linguistics, and in particular what is linguistics. So in computational linguistics, we have these two fields interacting: computer science that which you’re very familiar with, and linguistics. So what does linguistics study and what do linguists do? For the most part, linguists study the structure of human languages. We try to describe languages to find patterns to how the words relate to one another, the sounds relate to one another, and from this try to extrapolate general structure.
Hopefully structure that will apply not just to the language we’re studying, but to many languages, even all human languages. We try to find universals across them so that we can ultimately develop theories about the – scientific theories about the phenomenon of human language. We have several core components of linguistics and we believe that languages can be described using these core components.
So the first one is phonetics, and by the way what I am is a phonetician by training, phonetics studies how your mouth produces the sounds of language and how your ear perceives them. So for example, not all sounds are made the same. If you say something like mom, try it along with me, mom the part of your mouth that’s moving is mostly your lips. If you say something like cat, cat, do with me so you can feel the tongue touching the back of your mouth, cat, you can see that it’s not your lips that are doing the work it’s the back of your tongue.
So phonetics studies how your mouth moves when you’re producing sounds. Phonetics also studies how your ear perceives it. So your mouth has sound waves coming out of it and then the ear decomposes those audio signals and tries to find the patterns to identify each of the sounds. We’re going to do the same thing in speech recognition. We’re going to apply algorithms like a fast Fourier transformation to decompose an audio signal and then try to find similarities in them, or have a machine learning algorithm find the
And by the way I’ve mentioned mouth and ear but there’s other ways of doing human language. Sign languages for example transmit meaning using shapes of hands, changes in your face, and movements of your torso for example. So phonetics also studies how people use their hands, their fingers, their faces, their torsos to produce the words of sign languages, and how their eyes perceive these motions. So again phonetics studies how you produce and perceive sounds. Phonology also deals with sound, but it studies the organization of sounds, and particularly the organization of sounds in your brain.
So for example, there’s words that are different just by a single sound, we call those minimal pairs by the way. The word sheep and the word ship are different because of that one sound they have in the middle: the vowel. So phonology studies the relationship of sounds, which sounds make a word change, which sounds don’t make a word change, and how your brain stores sound information and how all that information interacts.
So both phonetics and phonology study sound. Phonetics studies the production and perception of sound and then phonology studies the mental organization of sounds. That’s sounds. But once your brain has put the words together, it needs to understand what the components of the words are. So there’s words like birds and foxes that can be split into smaller units so birds is several birds, it’s bird plus the plural s. Foxes is several foxes its fox, but it has a different plural es. Foxes. So why is – why do we not have the words birdes and foxs is the study of morphology.
Sometimes you have the plural as s, sometimes they have you have the plural as es. In general, words have parts that they can be – that can be split, and how these parts interact is the study of morphology. How words are formed together. Syntax interacts the order of words once they are formed. So for example in English, the sentence the cat slept quickly is a fine English sentence, but I have – if I have something like slept quickly cat the, it’s the same words but now they’re jumbled.
They’re jumbled so much that the order – that the meaning is impossible to grasp. Syntax studies the ordering of words so that your brain can compute the meaning, and languages have specific rules for how the word should be ordered. So morphology and syntax study words, and the order of words. Semantics studies meaning and how each of the words acquires meaning, and meaning is computed in our brain.
Pragmatics studies how context and the outside world interacts with meaning. So we’ve all been there, like you – you’re looking at the chat and someone says something and you’re trying to wonder exactly what they mean and what tone they said something in. It’s the difference between I love you and I love you. Those are two phrases, I love you, with the – with three identical words but said in very different tones. And this is the study of pragmatics: how context and intonation and previous speech interacts with the meaning of our sentences right now.
So again, language can be analyzed as if it was composed of different levels: of the sound level, phonetics and phonology, of the words the – the components and how they’re ordered, these would be morphology and syntax, and the meaning, how each word has meaning and how the meaning is computed including the context, these are semantics and pragmatics.
There’s other fields of linguistics. For example, psycholinguistics studies how language is processed in your brain and how humans learn language. If you’ve ever had a younger sibling or you’ve been around a baby when they’re learning how to – how to speak, it’s incredible to see them. They make mistakes but these mistakes are aggressive attempts of generalization, they are incredible attempts of trying to grasp the structure of language. And if you think about it babies learn language really fast. In about three years, they’re speaking English and this must mean that they’re learning about 50 words a day, which would be impossible for us to learn in a foreign language.
So psycholinguistics studies how language is processed in your brain and how people learn human language. Another field of linguistics is sociolinguistics. It studies how people project a persona or a kind of identity that they want to project to the world. This identity determines what kind of words you use but also even what kind of sounds will go into different words. A very simple example is the word in the United States for a fizzy drink. So a fizzy soft drink is sometimes called a soda in the parts in light blue, sometimes it’s called a pop in the parts that are yellow in the map, and sometimes it’s called a coke in the parts that are more purple in the map.
Darker areas have their own regional variations, so depending on where you’re from, you are gonna have one word for these and this is going to be part of the persona that you want to protect. Maybe you want to project that you are from that region and are gonna say that even more often than you would. Historical linguistics studies how languages change over time. So about 5,000, 6,000 years ago there was a language called Proto-Indo-European. As you can see in the center there the word for 100 in Indo-European was something like kmtom, and from this language many other languages emerged. English for example had kmtom go to kumtom, hundred.
Proto-Indo-European kmtom became Proto Italic kentom, Latin centum and ultimately Spanish cien. Other languages that come from Proto-Indo-European include Irish, Greek Persian, Hindi, Russian, and you can see in the chart how they have all changed over time. Historical linguistics studies these processes.
Finally, for this brief example, the field of language revitalization or language reclamation or language normalization, studies how to increase the usage of Indigenous languages that have been affected by colonization and adverse historical processes. Having more people communicate in indigenous languages and bring them into education for example and natural language processing helps build Indigenous sovereignty and helps rebuild the the sovereignty of these communities.
So in summary, linguistics studies different components of human language. There’s some core components like phonetics phonology for sound, morphology and syntax for words, semantics and pragmatics for meaning. It also studies how languages is instantiated in our brains, how it changes over time and how it interacts with society.
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