AskDefine | Define linguists

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  1. Plural of linguist

Extensive Definition

Linguistics is the science and philosophy of language. It approaches language through meaning, discourse, semiotics (or social signification), as well as through existing narrative and grammatical structures. The recent study of semiotics and discourse have introduced linguistics to the more metaphysical and sociological perspectives available today, making it open to a wide range of inter-disciplinary subjects and approaches within the realm of the human sciences. Someone who engages with language is often called a linguist.
The potential of linguistics lies in its possibilities for comparing cultural usages in order to explore lingual trends and social constructs. It explores histories to arrive at universals, and it examines the aesthetics of various styles in these literary and cultural discourses. It also attempts to account for the development of specific words and utterances through the way they have been used.
Linguistic inquiry may be pursued through a variety of intellectual disciplines. Although mainstream trends have attempted to make the field an exclusive one, linguistic study like all other human sciences, draws its resources from a number of inter-dependent subjects such as sociology, literature, history, art, philosophy, anthropology and aesthetics.
Narrative studies works on the theory of the narrative, or narratology. The study of narratives might help us to understand how the narratives and structures, that texts are based on, shape our social visions and perspectives. Narrative studies also throw light on what influences the arrangement of words-in-a-sequence, and how a narrative might be sociologically symbolic.
Discourse, or parole (in French, meaning ‘the spoken word’), provides an understanding of language on the basis of how it has actually been used – socially, culturally, in literary texts, in the media, and through the paradigms of power, gender, politics, race, sexuality and aesthetic tastes.
Semiotics is the study of the relationship between signs and what they signify: the abstract ideas, feelings, desires and needs that are manifested through the conscious and sub-conscious expression, choice of words and styles, represented in not just written, signed or verbal texts, but in media, art, fashion and history. The study of these signs might lead us to understand what lies behind them, and what they represent. From the perspective of semiotics, one could think that language is the sign or symbol and the world its representation.
Semantics is the study of meaning. In linguistics, it attempts to understand the meaning behind texts, utterances, usages and words either through a structuralist perspective or a post-structuralist one.
The linguistic analysis of structure is usually done through grammatical description and deconstruction, involving areas like morphology (formation and alteration of words), syntax (formation and alteration that help words to combine into phrases and sentences), phonology (the study of sound systems and abstract sound units), phonetics (which is concerned with the actual properties of speech sounds called phones), non-speech sounds, and the study of how these elements are produced and perceived.
Applied linguistics attempts to put linguistic theories into practice through areas like translation, stylistics, literary criticism and theory, discourse analysis, speech therapy, speech pathology and foreign language teaching.


Some interesting debates in linguistics lie within the problems of defining language from the paradigms of objectivity and subjectivity, universality and variety, structuralism and post-structuralism. Yet, there are others who view it as a problem of approaching it through form, or through content, through the physical or the metaphysical, the scientific or the philosophical, through the sociologically contexed or the context-free.
But traditional linguistics concerns itself with only a limited scope of problems: questions dealing with how we come to know languages, how languages vary, and what is universal to language. Post-structuralist theories and later academic trends, on the other hand, have attempted to look at the more semiotic aspects of language, taking it from the domain of the physical to the metaphysical.
Linguists from the Chomsky school of thought profess that all humans (except for “pathological” cases), achieve a sub-conscious competence in spoken language or (sign language) with the help of genetic endowments.
Through this, they also profess that animals and birds are incapable of language.. This has led to the trend of a large number of linguists assuming that the ability to acquire and use language is merely innate and biological, and that the ability to use language is merely like to the ability to walk.
The use of this bio-genetic approach to imply the existence of human power over other species, has also been criticized by philosophers as a ‘Darwinian’ interpretation which harks back and re-enforces colonial attitudes.
Research has been conducted on whether animals really are capable of language, the way humans are, and linguists have been divided on the view. Groups of linguists and philosophers have also tried to conduct experiments and train chimpanzees to follow instructions, use keyboards and read and talk in English.
There is however no consensus on this in the community of linguists across the world. Some claim that there is a very large set of highly abstract and specific binary settings coded into the human brain, while others claim that the ability to learn language is a product of general human cognition. Yet others believe that language is inherently pragmatic, and all things alive use language as a means to pleasure and survival.
But the controversy throws up many sociological questions that science might need to answer:
What do we mean when we say 'language'?
What is 'man' and what is 'animal' and who decides that?
Can social and cultural context be ignored in the study of linguistics?


Linguistic structures attempt to work through the pairing of meaning and form, with such pairings known as "Saussurean" signs. Linguists often specialize in some of these sub-parts, which can be arranged from either form to meaning.
Semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics) and fixed word combinations (phraseology), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences
Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used (literally, figuratively, or otherwise) in communicative acts
Discourse analysis, the analysis of language use in actual texts (spoken, written, or signed)
Translation, the study of the theoretical and practical processes that convert a text from one language to another, or one medium to another, like from the written to the spoken or literature to film.
Phonetics, the study of the physical units of speech production and perception
Phonology, the study of sounds (adjusted appropriately for signed languages) as discrete, abstract elements in the speaker's mind that distinguish meaning
Morphology, the study of internal structures of words and how they have been modified
Syntax, the study of how words combine to form sentences
Many linguists would agree the divisions overlap considerably, and the independent significance of each of these areas is not universally acknowledged. Regardless of any particular linguist’s position, each area has core concepts that foster significant scholarly inquiry and research.
Intersecting with these domains are fields arranged around the kind of external factors that are considered. For example
Linguistic typology, the categorization of languages across the world on the basis of certain common and varying properties
Stylistics, the study of linguistic factors that place a discourse in context
Developmental linguistics, the study of the development of linguistic ability in an individual, particularly the acquisition of language in childhood
Historical linguistics or Diachronic linguistics, the study of language change
Language geography, the study of the spatial patterns of languages
Evolutionary linguistics, the study of the origin and subsequent development of language
Psycholinguistics, the study of the cognitive processes and representations underlying language use
Sociolinguistics, the study of social patterns and norms of linguistic variability
Clinical linguistics, the application of linguistic theory to the area of Speech-Language Pathology
Neurolinguistics, the study of the brain networks that underlie grammar and communication
Biolinguistics, the study of natural as well as human-taught communication systems in animals compared to human language
Computational linguistics, the study of computational implementations of linguistic structures
Applied linguistics, the study of language-related issues applied in everyday life, notably language policies, planning, and education. Constructed language fits under applied linguistics


Linguistic research from the paradigm of generative grammar has also concerned itself with trying to account for 'differences' among languages of the world. This has worked on the assumption that if human linguistic ability is narrowly constrained by biological properties of the species, then languages must be very similar. And that if human linguistic ability is unconstrained, then languages might vary greatly.
The Latin language spoken by the Ancient Romans developed into Spanish in Spain and Italian in Italy. Similarities between Spanish and Italian are in many cases due to both being descended from Latin. This has led to the idea among mainstream linguists, that if two languages share some property, this property might either be due to common inheritance or due to some property of the human language faculty, besides cases where mere chance is at the root of the similarity: the way that Japanese provides an example with 'so,' which shares a meaning with similar sounding English and German words.
Documented cases of sign languages being developed in communities of congenitally deaf people who could not have been exposed to spoken language have also made an impact on generative linguists. The properties of these sign languages have been seen to conform generally to many of the properties of spoken languages.
In generativist theory, the collection of properties all languages share are referred to as universal grammar (UG), the characteristics of which are a much debated topic. Typologists and non-generativist linguists usually refer simply to language universals, or universals of language.
It is assumed that universal properties of language may be due to universal aspects of human experience. For example, all humans experience water, and all human languages have a word for water. Clearly, experience are part of the process by which individuals learn languages. UG has defined those structures which are necessarily a part of all human language because of the de facto structure of the Language Acquisition Device.


It has been perceived that languages tend to be organized around grammatical categories such as noun and verb, nominative and accusative, or present and past, though, importantly, not exclusively so. The grammar of a language is organized around such fundamental categories, though many languages express the relationships between words and syntax in other discrete ways (cf. some Bantu languages for noun/verb relations, ergative/absolutive systems for case relations, several Native American languages for tense/aspect relations).
In addition to making substantial use of discrete categories, language has the important property that it organizes elements into recursive structures; this allows, for example, a noun phrase to contain another noun phrase (as in “the chimpanzee’s lips”) or a clause to contain a clause (as in “I think that it’s raining”). Though recursion in grammar was implicitly recognized much earlier (for example by Jespersen), the importance of this aspect of language became more popular after the 1957 publication of Noam Chomsky’s book “Syntactic Structures”, - that presented a formal grammar of a fragment of English. Prior to this, the most detailed descriptions of linguistic systems were of phonological or morphological systems.
Chomsky used a context-free grammar augmented with transformations. Since then, following the trend of Chomskyan linguistics, context-free grammars have been written for substantial fragments of various languages (for example GPSG, for English), but it has been demonstrated that human languages include cross-serial dependencies, which cannot be handled adequately by context-free grammars.


Diachronic linguistics
Studying languages at a particular point in time (usually the present) is "synchronic", while diachronic linguistics examines how language changes through time, sometimes over centuries. It enjoys both a rich history and a strong theoretical foundation for the study of language change.
In universities in the United States, the non-historic perspective seems to have an upper hand. Many introductory linguistics classes, for example, cover historical linguistics only cursorily. The shift in focus to a non-historic perspective started with Saussure and became pre-dominant with Noam Chomsky.
Explicitly historical perspectives include historical-comparative linguistics and etymology.
Contextual linguistics
Contextual linguistics may include the study of linguistics in interaction with other academic disciplines. Mainstream theories in the academic scenario unfortunately treat language as exquisitely confined to a limited world-view. The interdisciplinary areas of linguistics consider how language interacts with the rest of the world.
Sociolinguistics, anthropological linguistics, and linguistic anthropology are seen as areas that bridge the gap between linguistics and society as a whole.
Psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics relate linguistics to the medical sciences.
Other cross-disciplinary areas of linguistics include evolutionary linguistics, computational linguistics and cognitive science.
Applied linguistics
Linguists are largely concerned with finding and describing the generalities and varieties both within particular languages and among all language. Applied linguistics takes the result of those findings and “applies” them to other areas. Often “applied linguistics” refers to the use of linguistic research in language teaching, but results of linguistic research are used in many other areas, as well.
Today in the age of information technology, many areas of applied linguistics attempt to involve the use of computers. Speech synthesis and speech recognition use phonetic and phonemic knowledge to provide voice interfaces to computers. Applications of computational linguistics in machine translation, computer-assisted translation, and natural language processing are areas of applied linguistics which have come to the forefront. Their influence has had an effect on theories of syntax and semantics, as modeling syntactic and semantic theories on computers constraints.


Research currently performed under linguistics is ethically expected to be "descriptive"; linguists are meant to clarify the characteristics of language without making a judgment on whether it is "right" or "wrong": to describe rather than to prescribe.
To prescribe is to often promote the acrolect of a particular language. An extreme version of prescriptivism can be found among censors, whose personal mission is to eradicate words and structures which they consider to be destructive to society.
Descriptivists might describe the usages the other has in mind simply as "idiosyncratic," or they may discover a commonality (a trend) in usages. Within the context of fieldwork, descriptive linguistics refers to the study of language using a descriptivist approach.

Speech and writing

Most contemporary linguists work under the assumption that spoken language is more fundamental, and thus more important to study, than written language. This is a myth. But the reasons for this myth are:
  • Speech appears to be a human "universal", whereas there have been many cultures and speech communities that lack written communication;
  • People learn to speak and process spoken languages more easily and much earlier than writing;
  • A number of cognitive scientists argue that the brain has an "innate" "language module", knowledge of which is thought to come more from studying speech rather than writing, particularly since language as speech is held to be an "evolutionary" adaptation, whereas writing is a comparatively "recent" invention.
So written language is of use to them only for the convenience of transcription and "research" on corpus linguistics and computational linguistics, since large corpora of spoken language are difficult to create and hard to find.
The study of writing systems is considered a branch of linguistics.


Some of the earliest linguistic activities can be recalled from Iron Age India with the analysis of Sanskrit. The Pratishakhyas (from ca. the 8th century BC) constitute as it were a proto-linguistic ad hoc collection of observations about mutations to a given corpus particular to a given Vedic school. Systematic study of these texts gives rise to the Vedanga discipline of Vyakarana, the earliest surviving account of which is the work of (c. 520460 BC), who, however, looks back on what are probably several generations of grammarians, whose opinions he occasionally refers to. formulates close to 4,000 rules which together form a compact generative grammar of Sanskrit. Inherent in his analytic approach are the concepts of the phoneme, the morpheme and the root. Due to its focus on brevity, his grammar has a highly unintuitive structure, reminiscent of contemporary "machine language" (as opposed to "human readable" programming languages).
Indian linguistics maintained a high level for several centuries; Patanjali in the 2nd century BC still actively criticizes Panini. In the later centuries BC, however, Panini's grammar came to be seen as prescriptive, and commentators came to be fully dependent on it. Bhartrihari (c. 450510) theorized the act of speech as being made up of four stages: first, conceptualization of an idea, second, its verbalization and sequencing (articulation) and third, delivery of speech into atmospheric air, the interpretation of speech by the listener, the interpreter.
In the Middle East, the Persian linguist Sibawayh made a detailed and professional description of Arabic in 760, in his monumental work, Al-kitab fi al-nahw (الكتاب في النحو, The Book on Grammar), bringing many linguistic aspects of language to light. In his book he distinguished phonetics from phonology.
Western linguistics begins in Classical Antiquity with grammatical speculation such as Plato's Cratylus.
Sir William Jones noted that Sanskrit shared many common features with classical Latin and Greek, notably verb roots and grammatical structures, such as the case system. This led to the theory that all languages sprung from a common source and to the discovery of the Indo-European language family. He began the study of comparative linguistics, which would uncover more language families and branches.
Some early-19th-century linguists were Jakob Grimm, who devised a principle of consonantal shifts in pronunciation -- known as Grimm's Law -- in 1822; Karl Verner, who formulated Verner's Law; August Schleicher, who created the "Stammbaumtheorie" ("family tree"); and Johannes Schmidt, who developed the "Wellentheorie" ("wave model") in 1872.
Ferdinand de Saussure was the founder of modern structural linguistics. Edward Sapir, a leader in American structural linguistics, was one of the first who explored the relations between language studies and anthropology. His methodology had strong influence on all his successors. Noam Chomsky's formal model of language, transformational-generative grammar, developed under the influence of his teacher Zellig Harris, who was in turn strongly influenced by Leonard Bloomfield, has been the dominant model since the 1960s.
Noam Chomsky remains a pop-linguistic figure. Linguists (working in frameworks such as Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) or Lexical Functional Grammar (LFG)) are increasingly seen to stress the importance of formalization and formal rigor in linguistic description, and may distance themselves somewhat from Chomsky's more recent work (the "Minimalist" program for Transformational grammar), connecting more closely to his earlier works.
Others working in Optimality Theory state generalizations in terms of violable constraints, which is a greater departure from generativist linguistics. Functionalist linguists working in functional grammar and Cognitive Linguistics tend to stress the non-autonomy of linguistic knowledge and the non-universality of linguistic structures, thus differing significantly from the Chomskyan school. They reject Chomskyan intuitive introspection as a scientific method, relying instead on typological evidence.



Branches and fields
Popular works and texts
  • David Crystal - Linguistics; The Stories of English; The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language (1987). Cambridge University Press. ; A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (1991) Blackwell (ISBN 0-631-17871-6); An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Language and Languages (1992) Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (2006), The Language Instinct Debate, Continuum International, (ISBN 0-8264-7385-7) - challenges the fundamental assumptions of Pinker's The Language Instinct, the two together illustrate one of the most significant debates within the field of theoretical linguistics in the early 21st century.
  • Chomsky, Noam, (1965), Aspects of the Theory of Syntax; Syntactic Structures; On Language
  • Deacon, Terrence (1998), The Symbolic Species, WW Norton & Co. (ISBN 0-393-31754-4)
  • Deutscher, Guy (2005), The Unfolding of Language, Metropolitan Books (ISBN 0-8050-7907-6) (ISBN 978-0-8050-7907-4)
  • Harrison, K. David. (2007) When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge. New York and London: Oxford University Press. (ISBN 0-195-18192-1)
  • Hayakawa, Alan R & S. I. (1990), Language in Thought and Action, Harvest. (ISBN 0-15-648240-1)
  • Rymer, Russ (1992), Annals of Science in "The New Yorker", 13th April
  • White, Lydia (1992), Universal Grammar and Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0-521-79647-4)
  • Linguistics: An Introduction
  • Linguistics
  • Introduction To Linguistics
  • Hudson, G. (2000) Essential Introductory Linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Jackson, Howard. (2007), Key Terms in Linguistics, Continuum. (ISBN 0-82-648742-4)
  • Lyons, John (1995), Linguistic Semantics, Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0-521-43877-2)
  • Napoli, Donna J. (2003) Language Matters. A Guide to Everyday Questions about Language. Oxford University Press.
  • O'Grady, William D., Michael Dobrovolsky & Francis Katamba [eds.] (2001), Contemporary Linguistics, Longman. (ISBN 0-582-24691-1) - Lower Level
  • Ohio State University Department of Linguistics. (2007) Language Files (10th ed.). Ohio State University Press.
  • Taylor, John R. (2003), Cognitive Grammar, Oxford University Press. (ISBN 0-19-870033-4)
  • Trask, R. L. (1995) Language: The Basics. London: Routledge.
  • Ungerer, Friedrich & Hans-Jorg Schmid (1996), An Introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Longman. (ISBN 0-582-23966-4)
  • Fauconnier, Gilles - Mental Spaces (1995), 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0-521-44949-9); Mappings in Thought and Language (1997), Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0-521-59953-9); & Mark Turner The Way We Think (2003), Basic Books (ISBN 0-465-08786-8); Rymer, p. 48, quoted in Fauconnier and Turner, p. 353
  • Sampson, Geoffrey (1982), Schools of Linguistics, Stanford University Press. (ISBN 0-8047-1125-9)
  • Sweetser, Eve (1992), From Etymology to Pragmatics, repr ed., Cambridge University Press. (ISBN 0-521-42442-9)
  • Van Orman Quine, Willard (1960), Word and Object, MIT Press. (ISBN 0-262-67001-1)
  • Aronoff, Mark & Janie Rees-Miller (Eds.) (2003) The Handbook of Linguistics. Blackwell Publishers. (ISBN 1-4051-0252-7)
  • Asher, R. (Ed.) (1993) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press. 10 vols.
  • Bright, William (Ed) (1992) International Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Oxford University Press. 4 Vols.
  • Brown, Keith R. (Ed.) (2005) Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics (2nd ed.). Elsevier. 14 vols.
  • Bussmann, H. (1996) Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics''. Routledge (translated from German).
  • Graffi, G. 2001 - Two years of syntax (A Critical Survey), Amsterdam, Benjamins, 2001.
  • Frawley, William (Ed.) (2003) International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (2nd ed.), Oxford University Press
  • Malmkjaer, Kirsten (1991) The Linguistics Encyclopaedia. Routledge (ISBN 0-415-22210-9)
  • Trask, R. L. - A Dictionary of Grammatical Terms in Linguistics (1993). Routledge. (ISBN 0-415-08628-0); Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology (1996). Routledge.; A student's dictionary of language and linguistics. (1997); 'Key Concepts in Language and Linguistics (1999). London: Routledge.
Literature and art exploring linguistic themes


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linguists in Afrikaans: Taalwetenskappe
linguists in Amharic: የቋንቋ ጥናት
linguists in Arabic: لسانيات
linguists in Aragonese: Lingüistica
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