“What is linguistics?”

101 answers


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Linguists are used to the fact that many people don’t know what “linguistics” really means.

Many linguists find it easier to answer the question up front, before confusion sets in and they are asked how many languages they speak.  I doubt that many mathematics departments open their web site with “What is math?” in big bold letters, but many linguistics departments do exactly that.  In order to save linguists the trouble of having to repeatedly answer the question, this page has 101 (actually more) answers that have been given to the question. If you were sent here by a linguist after asking “How many languages do you speak?”, I hope the answers here will help you understand the linguist’s response.


Perhaps the best response is from linguists themselves, the LSA Guide to the fields of linguistics is probably the best answer.


If you have a little time, here are three other sites with fairly detailed answers…


Basic overview of linguistics 

What is Linguistics? from an on-line course at the Translation, Theory and Technology Homepage

The Museum of Human Languages


Another good place to start is at a linguistics FAQ. Here are two examples…



     and another faq from John Lawler


If you’re interested in learning more here’s a list of on-line materials for introductory linguistics courses.


Here is The Audio Version of a response. It contains a downloadable audio file of a spoken response to “What is linguistics?”.


And just in case you have nothing better to do, here is Joseph Stalin’s answer to “What is linguistics?” from the Anarchy Archives at marxists.org


An additional 100 answers are listed below (including a few answers in languages other than English)…




Stu Barton

Boston University

Bielefeld University (Germany)

Suzette Haden Elgin

Cal State Fullerton

Cal State University Long Beach

Cal State Northridge

Center for Applied Linguistics

David Crystal


Dublin City University

Lisa Eckstein

Göteborgs University (Sweden)

Hacattepe University (Turkey)


Hong Kong University


Indiana State University


Inter American University of Puerto Rico

Kassel University


La Trobe University (Australia)

Lund University (Sweden)

Macalester College


Mainz University (Germany)

McGill University

Memorial University of Newfoundland

Michigan State University

Monash University (Australia)

Name withheld by request

National Chung Cheng University (Taiwan)

National University of Singapore

Northeastern University

Northwestern University

Oakland University

Ohio Unversity

Penn State University

Phoenix City, Alabama Bureau of Education

Princeton University

Queens College

Queen’s University, Kingston (Ontario)

Rhodes University (South Africa)

Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm

St Olaf College

Joaquin Selva Perez

Shaozhong Liu Guangxi Normal University

Southern Illinois University

Speech and Hearing Net

Stanford University

Texas A&M University

Tulane University

Universität des Saarlandes (pdf file)

University of Adelaide

University of Alberta

University of Alaska Fairbanks

University of Arizona


University of Birmingham

University of California, Davis

University of California Los Angeles

University of California, Santa Cruz

University of Cambridge

Universityof Canterbury (New Zealand)

University of Colorado, Boulder

University of East London

University of Hertfordshire

University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

University of Leiden

University of Manitoba

University of Maryland

University of Massachusetts

University of Minnesota, Duluth

University of New Brunswick

University of New England (Australia)

University of New Hampshire

University of Nijmegen

University of Otago (New Zealand)

University of Pennsylvania

University of Pittsburgh

University of Quebec at Montreal

University of Queensland

University of Rochester

University of Salzburg

University of Syndey


University of Sussex

University of Toledo

University of Wales, Bangor

University of Washington

University of West England

University of Western Australia

University of Western Ontario

University of York

Wake Forest University

Washington State University

Wayne State University

Hav er lingvistikk?

Le science du langue – qu’est-ce que?

Mi is az a nyelvészet?

O que é lingüística?

Qué es la lingüística?

Talkuunde, wat is dat?

Was ist Sprachwissenschaft?