- Q:Linguistics is the scientific study of human
- What is Linguistics, anyway?
- Q:All humans have some language, without exception.
It's a distinguishing biological trait of Homo Sapiens. And all
human languages have a lot of similarities, and they tell us quite a lot
about what it means to be human, which is a big preoccupation of H. Sapiens.
- What do you mean by "human language"?
Here's what Edward Sapir (considered by many the
greatest American linguist of the last century) said:
"Everything that we have so far seen to be true of language points to
that it is the most significant and colossal work that the human
evolved -- nothing short of a finished form of expression for
experience. This form may be endlessly varied by the individual
losing its distinctive contours; and it is constantly reshaping
itself as is all art.
"Language is the most massive and inclusive art we know, a mountainous
anonymous work of unconscious generations."
-- Language (1921)
- Q:Roughly, objective, unbiased,
data-oriented, and reproducible, among other meanings.
Simply put, linguists are concerned with how language actually
does work, rather than with how (somebody says) it ought
to work. This is a fairly new approach to a very old interest, since
people have always been interested in language, even though it is a hard
subject to talk about.
- All right, what do you mean by "scientific"?
- Q:Linguistics is paradoxically both a very old and a very new discipline.
It's very old because its physical and physiological basis is the
science of Phonetics (the study of how the sounds of human speech
are produced and perceived), which was founded in ancient India about
2500 years ago, roughly the same time the Periclean Golden Age was
happening in Athens. Later, three of the classical and medieval Seven
Liberal Arts, studied by all university students as a basis for all
other studies, were concerned with language:
- How old is Linguistics, then?
All of these ancient disciplines have found their way into modern Linguistics.
- Rhetoric, and
Linguistics is also very new because Western science didn't put all
this together into a useful discipline until about 200 years ago, and
didn't invent many other useful ways to study other aspects of human
language until the present century. In fact, it's so new that most
Americans, for instance, know even less about Linguistics (and about
languages, including their own) than they do about mathematics; both
are notoriously difficult things to talk and to think about.
- Q:Linguistics is a bit unusual as a discipline
because human language is so ubiquitous that it permeates everything
in our experience. It's not all that easy to think and talk about, since
you have to use language to do that. So linguists have tried all
kinds of ways to study language, and found out all kinds of things from
each method. In consequence, Linguistics extends across the modern
academic categories of Natural Science, Social Science, and Humanities.
College of Literature, Science, and the Arts of the
University of Michigan, the
Linguistics Department is housed
administratively in the Division of Humanities, though its studies range
far beyond that. For instance, all of the following are the subject of
research and teaching in the Linguistics Department:
- Why is that? And how do you get around it?
- Phonetics is a natural science, encompassing parts of
Acoustics and Human Physiology, Anatomy, and Perceptual Psychology.
- Sociolinguistics (the study of how language works in social
- Ethnolinguistics (the study of language as a part
of culture), and
- Psycholinguistics (the study of how humans learn
and use language individually)
- are social sciences -- allied
(respectively) with Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology.And
Analysis (the study of how authors use written language to produce
the effects they do) is one of the humanities, affiliated with Literary
- Syntax (the part of Grammar that
studies how words go together to form phrases and clauses) is related to
some parts of Mathematics.
- What can I do with a Linguistics major?
- A:About the same thing you can do with any LS&A major:
learn to think. College isn't really about job training;
college is about
expanding your intellectual skills and building up your knowledge base to
use them on; "furnishing your mind so you have a place to live in
Linguistics does, however, convey certain benefits
as a major:
- it requires, for successful assimilation, a very broad view of
human history and geography, since languages are everywhere people are,
and don't pay much attention to physical or political boundaries.
And a good grasp of global reality turns out to be useful.
- it applies everywhere, since language is ubiquitous in the human
species, and thus the study of Linguistics (much like the study of
History) gives one a point of view, a place to stand where one can study absolutely anything.
Again, a broad perspective on human knowledge and the willingness to
investigate anything is a very useful intellectual tool.
- the study of Linguistics is largely an analytic discipline, and the
analytic tools one learns generalize nicely to virtually any subject; this
can often come in handy.
- finally, Linguistics is fun, and some people enjoy having fun.
There are also certain drawbacks to the study of Linguistics as well:
- since it is not a commonly-studied subject in the United States, majors
in Linguistics frequently have to explain what it is, and even how to spell it.
It is not even unheard-of for Linguistics majors to have problems explaining
to their parents what Linguistics is.
- similarly, everybody asks linguists how many languages they speak. This
is the wrong question, and there's no good answer for it.
- Linguistics has a certain (mostly undeserved) reputation as being difficult, so
many Linguistics concentrators report that people often perceive them as very
smart, simply because these people know almost nothing about Linguistics.
This can occasionally be embarrassing.