Linguistics is the scientific study of language. By this we mean language in general, not a particular language. If we were concerned with studying an individual language, we would say ‘I’m studying French… or English,’ or whichever language we happen to be studying. But linguistics does not study an individual language, it studies ‘language’ in general.
That is, linguistics, according to Robins (1985): is concerned with human language as a universal and recognizable part of the human behaviour and of the human faculties, perhaps one of the most essential to human life as we know it, and one of the most far-reaching of human capabilities in relation to the whole span of mankind’s achievements.
Does this not sound a little abstract? It is, because there is no way of studying ‘language’ without referring to and taking examples from particular languages. However, even while doing so, the emphasis of linguistics is different. Linguistics does not emphasise practical knowledge or mastery of a particular language. Linguists may know only one language, or may know several, or may even study a language they do not know at all. What they are trying to study are the ways in which language is organised to fulfil human needs, as a system of communication. There is a difference between a person who knows many languages (called a polyglot), and a linguist, who studies general principles of language organisation and language behaviour, often with reference to some actual language or languages. Any language can be taken up to illustrate the principles of language organisation, because all languages reveal something of the nature of language in general. (Of course, it may be of help to a linguist to know more languages so that differences and contrasts as well as similarities between the languages can also be studied in a better way.)
We can say that linguistics is learning about language rather than learning a language. This distinction is often explained as the difference between learning how a car works and learning how to drive a car. When we learn how to drive a car, we learn a set of habits and do some practice—this is similar to learning how to speak a language. When we learn how the car works, we open up its mechanism, study it and investigate the relationship of its parts to one another. This is similar to what we do in a scientific study of language, or linguistics: we investigate the mechanism of language, its parts and how all these parts fit together to perform particular functions, and why they are arranged or organised in a certain manner. Just as while driving a car, we are using its various components, while speaking a language we are using the sounds, words, etc. of that language; behind these uses is the mechanism which enables us to do so. We study language because it is important for us to understand this mechanism.
Linguistics As A Science
Linguistics can he understood as a science in both general and specific terms. Generally, we use the term ‘science’ for any knowledge that is based on clear, systematic and rational understanding. Thus we often speak of the ‘science of politics’ or statecraft, or ‘the science of cooking’. However, we also use the term ‘science’ for the systematic study of phenomena enabling us to state some principles or theories regarding the phenomena; this study proceeds by examination of publicly verifiable data obtained through observation of phenomena, and experimentation; in other words, it is empirical and objective. Science must also provide explanation after adequate observation of data, which should be consistent, i.e. there should be no contradictions between different parts of the explanation or statement; and economical, i.e. a precise and non-redundant manner of statement is to be preferred.
Let us apply these criteria of science to linguistics. Linguistics studies language: language is a phenomenon which is both objective and variable. Like natural phenomena in the physical world, it has a concrete shape and occurrence. In the same way as a physicist or chemist takes materials and measures their weights, densities etc. to determine their nature, the linguist studies the components of language, e.g. observing the occurrence of speech-sounds, or the way in which words begin or end. Language, like other phenomena, is objective because it is observable with the senses, i.e., it can be heard with the ear, it can be seen when the vocal organs are in movement, or when reading words on a page.
Observation leads to processes of classification and definition. In science, each observable phenomenon is to be given a precise explanation. Its nature has to be described completely. Thus, for example, the chemist classifies elements into metals and non-metals; a biologist classifies living things into plants and animals. In the same way, linguistics observes the features of language, classifies these features as being sound features of particular types, or words belonging to particular classes on the basis of similarity or difference with other sounds and words.
But while linguistics shares some of characteristics of empirical science, it is also a social science because it studies language which is a form of social behaviour and exists in interaction between human beings in society. Language is also linked to human mental processes. For these reasons, it cannot be treated always as objective phenomena.
In empirical sciences, the methods of observation and experimentation are known as inductive procedures. This means that phenomena are observed and data is collected without any preconceived idea or theory, and after the data is studied, some theory is formulated. This has been the main tradition in the history of western science. But there is an opposing tradition the tradition of rationalism, which holds that the mind forms certain concepts or ideas beforehand in terms of which it interprets the data of observation and experience. According to this tradition, the deductive procedure is employed in which we have a preliminary hypothesis or theory in our minds which we then try to prove by applying it to the data. This procedure was considered to be unscientific according to the empirical scientists because they felt that pre-existent ideas can influence the kind of data we obtain i.e. we search only for those pieces of data that fit our theory and disregard others and therefore it is not an objective method. On the other hand, it has been observed by some thinkers (such as Popper) that no observation can be free of some theory; it cannot be totally neutral.
We can, however, reconcile these two procedures. There are aspects of language which we can observe quite easily and which offer concrete instances of objective and verifiable data. At the same time, we need to create hypothesis to explain this data, so we may create tentative or working hypothesis to explain this data, which we may accept, reject or modify as we proceed further. With such an open attitude, we may collect more data. This alternation of inductive and deductive procedures may help us to arrive at explanations which meet all the requirements of science, i.e. they are exhaustive, consistent and concise.
Thus, linguistics is both an empirical science and a social science. In fact, it is a human discipline since it is concerned with human language; so it is part of the study of humanities as well. This includes the study of literature, and appreciation of the beauty and music of poetry. In understanding language, humankind can understand itself. Moreover, since every branch of knowledge uses language, linguistics is central to all areas of knowledge. In regard to linguistics, the traditional distinctions of science, art and humanities are not relevant. As Lyons puts it, linguistics has natural links with a wide range of academic disciplines. To say that linguistics is a science is not to deny that, by virtue of its subject matter, it is closely related to such eminently human disciplines as philosophy and literary criticism.
Scope of Linguistics
Linguistics today is a subject of study, independent of other disciplines. Before the twentieth century, the study of language was not regarded as a separate area of study in its own right. It was considered to he a part of studying the history of language or the philosophy of language, and this was known not as linguistics but as philosophy. So ‘Linguistics’ is a modern name which defines a specific discipline, in which we study language not in relation to some other area such as history or philosophy, but language as itself, as a self enclosed and autonomous system, worthy of study in its own right. It was necessary at the beginning of the growth of modern linguistics to define this autonomy of the subject, otherwise it would not have been possible to study the language system with the depth and exhaustiveness which it requires. However, now we acknowledge that while linguistics is a distinct area of study, it is also linked to other disciplines and there are overlapping areas of concern.
The main concern of modern linguistics is to describe language, to study its nature and to establish a theory of language. That is, it aims at studying the components of the language system and to ultimately arrive at an explanatory statement on how the system works. In modern linguistics, the activity of describing the language system is the most important and so modern linguistics is generally known as descriptive. But linguistics has other concerns as well, which fall within its scope and these include historical and comparative study of language. These differ from the descriptive approach in their emphasis; otherwise, these approaches also involve description of language.
Levels of Linguistic Analysis
In studying language which is the subject-matter of linguistics, we mark or sub-divide the area in order to study it in an analytical and systematic way. Language has a hierarchical structure. This means that it is made up of units which are themselves made up of smaller units which are made of still smaller units till we have the smallest indivisible unit, i.e. a single distinguishable sound, called a phoneme. Or we can put it the other way round, and say that single sounds or phonemes combine together to make larger units of sounds, these combine into a larger meaningful unit called a morpheme; morphemes combine to form larger units of words, and words combine to form a large unit or sentence and several sentences combine or interconnect to make a unified piece of speech or writing, which we call a text or discourse. At each stage (or level), there are certain rules that operate which permit the occurrence and combination of smaller units. So we can say that rule of phonology determine the occurrence and combination of particular phoneme, rules of word-formation cover the behaviour of particular morphemes; rules of sentence-formation determine the combination and positioning of words in a sentence. Each level is a system in its own right. It is important to remember that, because of the existence of rules at each level, we can analyse each level independently of the other. This means that if we study one level, e.g. phonology or the sound-system, we need not necessarily study another level, say that of sentence-formation. We can study phonology on its own, and syntax on its own. Although these levels are linked in that one is lower in the hierarchy and another is higher in the hierarchy, and the higher level includes the lower, still each level is independent because it has its own rules of operation that can be described, analysed and understood.
We can represent these levels in the following manner, with each level of analysis corresponding to each level of the structure of the language:
Levels of Analysis Levels of Structure
Phonetics and Phonology SOUND
Morphology WORD FORMATION
Discourse CONNECTED SENTENCES
A careful look at the above diagram will show that the levels of language structure are not completely separate from one another. In fact, there are important and vital linkages between the levels. In earlier studies, it was supposed that phonology, the level of sound structure, had no link whatsoever with semantics or the level of meaning structure. Now we know that links between these levels are far more complex than we had earlier accepted. With regard to discourse, we can see that it is made up of all the levels of language working together, while semantics incorporates analysis of meaning at the level of both words (word-meaning) and of sentence-meaning.
However, we can study these links only after we describe and analyse structure at each level separately. Thus Phonetics studies language at the level of sounds: How sounds are articulated by the human speech mechanism and received by the auditory mechanism, how sounds can be distinguished and characterised by the manner in which they are produced. Phonology studies the combination of sounds into organised units of speech, the formation of syllables and larger units. It describes the sound system of a particular language and the combination and distribution of sounds which occur in that language. Classification is made on the basis of the concept of the phoneme, i.e. a distinctive, contrasted sound unit, e.g. /m/, //, /p/. These distinct sounds enter into combination with others. The rules of combination are different for different languages.
Though phonology is considered to be the surface or superficial level of language (as it is concrete and not abstract like meaning), there are some aspects of it such as tone which contribute to the meaning of an utterance.
Morphology studies the patterns of formation of words by the combination of sounds into minimal distinctive units of meaning called morphemes. A morpheme cannot be broken up because if it is, it will no longer make sense, e.g. a morpheme ‘bat’ is made up of three sounds: /b/ /æ/ and /t/. This combination makes up the single morpheme ‘bat’ and if broken up, it will no longer carry the meaning of ‘bat’. Words can be made up of single morphemes such as ‘bat’ or combinations of morphemes, e.g. ‘bats’ is made up of two morphemes: ‘bat’ + ‘s’. Morphology deals with the rules of combination of morphemes to form words, as suffixes or prefixes are attached to single morphemes to form words. It studies the changes that take place in the structure of words, e.g. the morpheme ‘take’ changes to ‘took’ and ‘taken’––these changes signify a change in tense.
The level of morphology is linked to phonology on the one hand and to semantics on the other. It is clear in the above example of ‘take’ that the change to ‘took’ involves a change in one of the sounds in this morpheme. It also involves a change in meaning: ‘take’ means the action ‘take’ + time present and ‘took’ means the action ‘take’ + time past. So morphological changes often involve changes at the levels of both sound and meaning.
Syntax is the level at which we study how words combine to form phrases, phrases combine to form clauses and clauses join to make sentences. The study of syntax also involves the description of the rules of positioning of elements in the sentence such as the nouns/noun syntax phrases, verbs/verb phrases, adverbial phrases, etc. A sentence must be composed of these elements arranged in a particular order. Syntax also attempts to describe how these elements function in the sentence, i.e. what is their role in the sentence. For example, the word ‘boy’ is a noun. However, in each of the following sentences, it functions in different roles:
(a) The boy likes cricket
(b) The old man loved the boy.
In sentence (a), it functions as the subject of the sentence
In sentence (b), it functions as the object.
A sentence should be both grammatical and meaningful. For example, a sentence like ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ is grammatically correct but it is not meaningful. Thus, rules of syntax should be comprehensive enough to explain how sentences are constructed which are both grammatical and meaningful.
Semantics deals with the level of meaning in language. It attempts to analyse the structure of meaning in a language, e.g. how words similar or different are related; it attempts to show these inter-relationships through forming ‘categories’. Semantics tries to give an account of both word and sentence meaning, and attempts to analyse and define that which is considered to be abstract. It may be easy to define the meanings of words such as ‘tree’ but not so easy to define the meanings of words such as ‘love’ or similar abstract things. This is why semantics is one of the less clearly definable areas of language study.
An extension of the study of meaning or semantics is pragmatics. Pragmatics deals with the contextual aspects of meaning in particular situations. As distinct from the study of sentences, pragmatics considers utterances, i.e. those sentences which are actually uttered by speakers of a language.
Discourse is the study of chunks of language which are bigger than a single sentence. At this level, we analyse inter-sentential links that form a connected or cohesive text. Cohesion is the relation established in a sentence between it and the sentences preceding and following it, by the use of connectives such as ‘and’, ‘though’, ‘also’, ‘but’ etc. and by the manner in which reference is made to other parts of the text by devices such as repetition or by use of pronouns, definite articles, etc. By studying the elements of cohesion we can understand how a piece of connected language can have greater meaning that is more than the sum of the individual sentences it contains.
In addition to these levels of linguistic analysis, we also study Graphology which is the study of the writing system of a language and the conventions used in representing speech in writing, e.g. the formation of letters Lexicology studies the manner in which lexical items (words) are grouped together as in the compilation of dictionaries.
Linguists differ according to what they consider as included in the scope of linguistic studies. Some consider the proper area of linguistics to be confined to the levels of phonology, morphology and syntax. This can be called a Micro-linguistic perspective. However, some take a broader, or macro-linguistic view which includes the other levels of analysis mentioned above, as well as other aspects of language and its relationship with many areas of human activity.