A way with words: What is Linguistics?


As a Linguistics student, I get asked two questions:

  1. “What IS Linguistics?”
  2. “How many languages do you speak?” 

To answer the latter: I only speak English, and GCSE-level French, which I would like to develop if I had the time. I would also like to learn Icelandic and Norwegian, but let’s face it: when will I ever have a spare few months to do that? This is the typical answer of a Linguistics student. On my course, I’d say most of us are only proficient in English, some of us with qualifications here and there in French or German, and with aspirations to learn other languages. The people who are already bilingual have a great advantage.

I’m now going to attempt to answer the former. Linguistics is a tricky one to pin down, so I’m going to explain the core modules that go into our degree:

Phonetics and Phonology:

  • This is about speech sounds, and goes to explain why speech sounds the way it does, and what affects it. We look at acoustics, which is to do with the physics of speech, and involves making close analyses of clips of speech. This is the sort of thing we find:
  • Image
  • This is a spectrogram, and it’d take a long time to explain everything, but essentially, the black parts indicate sound, and the white part is the absence of sound. 
  • Image
  • This is a waveform, and the closer to the Y-axis 0, the closer to silence we get. Generally speaking, a regular waveform is a vowel or a nasal sound (like [n] or [m]) and more erratic waves represent consonants such as fricatives (such as [s], [f]).
  • We also learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in order to be able to transcribe speech. It actually works quite a lot like shorthand, except whereas shorthand is about representing speech quickly, the IPA is about representing it accurately. We can represent accents using the IPA (accents mostly depend on vowel sounds) and there are also ways to show intonation. For example:
  • ˈtʃeɪndʒɪŋ jɔ: dʒɒb ənd ˈmu:vɪŋ haʊs mʌst bi: tu: əv ðə məʊst ˈstresfəl θɪŋz ðæt ˈeniˌwʌn kən gəʊ

    θru:. wen ju: hæv tə du: bəʊθ θɪŋz æt ðə seɪm taɪm aɪ θɪŋk ðeə ʃʊd bi: ə lɔ: wɪʃ meɪks ɪt

    kəmˈpʌlsəˌri: fə jɔ: nju: ɪmˈplɔɪjə tə gɪv ju: taɪm ɒf frɒm wɜ:k.

    Changing your job and moving house must be two of the most stressful things that anyone can go through. When you have to do both things at the same time I think there should be a law which makes it compulsory for your new employers to give you time off from work.

  • We learn a little bit about the biology of the vocal tract. In our first ever lecture, we were shown a video like this on a huge screen in the lecture theatre, which was a touch scarring:
  • Finally, we look at the structure of words and syllables, and the relationship between sounds. For example, did you know that syllables don’t often end at the edges of a word?

Semantics and Pragmatics:

  • This looks at what words and sentences mean.
  • Semantics is to do with what words mean. It looks at denotations (definitions) and connotations (what do we associate with certain words?)
  • Pragmatics is to do with what we mean when we use an utterance. An utterance is the pragmatic term for a spoken sentence. For example, we can read various things into an utterance such as this:
    Mary: Do you want to come to Herod’s party?
    Joseph: I need to buy some new sandals…
    For example, we can read Joseph’s reply to mean ‘Yes, but I need some new sandals before the party’, or ‘No, I need to buy some new sandals instead’, or we could infer that he wasn’t listening to Mary at all, and that his reply isn’t relevant to her question. As an aside, the last reading involves flouting Grice’s Maxim of Relevance, which we also look at.
  • Lots of our course focuses on Relevance Theory, which is based on the concept that communication succeeds because we take the most relevant interpretation as the one that the speaker intended to convey to us. To take a classic example:
    Mary: Pick up the bat and I’ll throw the ball to you.
    Here, we would probably assume that Mary meant some kind of cricket bat or baseball bat, rather than the little flying animal, as it’d be the most relevant interpretation. This might change, however, if you were in a bat sanctuary, and a baby bat was dying on the floor. Then the most relevant interpretation of the word ‘bat’ changes, based on the context. 

Generative Grammar:

  • Generative Grammar, or what is more broadly called Syntax, looks at the grammatical structure of language.
  • A lot of what we do is based on ‘syntax trees’, which are diagrams showing the way sentences are structured, and the way different elements interact to make a sentence grammatical or ungrammatical. Admittedly, I’m terrible at Syntax, so here’s an example from our lecture slides:
  • Image
  • Please don’t ask me to explain it. It’s something to do with blocking nodes, which are the blue letters, and I think the red CP might be an island node. Believe me, it doesn’t mean a great deal more to me than it will you.
  • Trees are basically an ‘easy’ way to display how things move, and how everything links to everything else in a sentence.
  • Syntax mostly deals with why some sentences aren’t grammatical, and how we form different types of sentence. For example:
    We are enjoying this post.
    Are we enjoying this post?
    The inversion of the subject and the auxiliary can give us an interrogative formulation.

Along with the core modules, we also take a module in Child Language Acquisition (how do children learn to speak, and what is the typical order they learn language in?), and there are optional modules in Sociolinguistics, Accents of English, Stuttering…

I hope this very quick summary has given you some idea as to what it is we do in Linguistics now!



2 Comments Add yours

  1. HI, I am a physicist and interested in knowing how human makes a consonant-vowel syllable. without learning. Could you find some references for me? Thanks. I have seen some some related frequency-time diagrams, but still not satisfied.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s