A Crash Course in the Branches of Linguistics

linguistics
Linguistics is the scientific study of language. But as Chris Daly points out, "there are rival views about what else should be said about what linguistics is" (Philosophy of Language: An Introduction, 2013). (blackred/Getty Images)

Don't confuse a linguist with a polyglot (someone who's able to speak many different languages) or with a language maven or SNOOT (a self-appointed authority on usage). A linguist is a specialist in the field of linguistics.

So then, what is linguistics?

Simply defined, linguistics is the scientific study of language. Though various types of language studies (including grammar and rhetoric) can be traced back over 2,500 years, the era of modern linguistics is barely two centuries old.

Kicked off by the late-18th-century discovery that many European and Asian languages descended from a common tongue (Proto-Indo-European), modern linguistics was reshaped, first, by Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and more recently by Noam Chomsky (born 1928) and others.

But there's a bit more to it than that.

Multiple Perspectives on Linguistics

Let's consider a few expanded definitions of linguistics.

  • "Everyone will agree that linguistics is concerned with the lexical and grammatical categories of individual languages, with differences between one type of language and another, and with historical relations within families of languages."
    (Peter Matthews, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics. Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • "Linguistics can be defined as the systematic inquiry into human language—into its structures and uses and the relationship between them, as well as into its development through history and its acquisition by children and adults. The scope of linguistics includes both language structure (and its underlying grammatical competence) and language use (and its underlying communicative competence)."
    (Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 6th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
  • "Linguistics 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."
    (Robert Henry Robins, General Linguistics: An Introductory Survey, 4th ed. Longmans, 1989)
  • "There is often considerable tension in linguistics departments between those who study linguistic knowledge as an abstract 'computational' system, ultimately embedded in the human brain, and those who are more concerned with language as a social system played out in human interactional patterns and networks of beliefs. . . . Although most theoretical linguists are reasonable types, they are sometimes accused of seeing human language as purely a formal, abstract system, and of marginalizing the importance of sociolinguistic research."
    (Christopher J. Hall, An Introduction to Language and Linguistics: Breaking the Language Spell. Continuum, 2005)

The "tension" that Hall refers to in this last passage is reflected, in part, by the many different types of linguistic studies that exist today.

Branches of Linguistics

Like most academic disciplines, linguistics has been divided into numerous overlapping subfields—"a stew of alien and undigestible terms," as Randy Allen Harris characterized them in his 1993 book The Linguistics Wars (Oxford University Press). Using the sentence "Fideau chased the cat" as an example, Allen offered this "crash course" in the major branches of linguistics. (Follow the links to learn more about these subfields.)

Phonetics concerns the acoustic waveform itself, the systematic disruptions of air molecules that occur whenever someone utters the expression.
Phonology concerns the elements of that waveform which recognizably punctuate the sonic flow—consonants, vowels, and syllables, represented on this page by letters.
Morphology concerns the words and meaningful subwords constructed out of the phonological elements—that Fideau is a noun, naming some mongrel, that chase is a verb signifying a specific action which calls for both a chaser and a chasee, that -ed is a suffix indicating past action, and so on.
Syntax concerns the arrangement of those morphological elements into phrases and sentences—that chased the cat is a verb phrase, that the cat is its noun phrase (the chasee), that Fideau is another noun phrase (the chaser), that the whole thing is a sentence.
Semantics concerns the proposition expressed by that sentence—in particular, that it is true if and only if some mutt named Fideau has chased some definite cat.

Though handy, Harris's list of linguistic subfields is far from comprehensive. In fact, some of the most innovative work in contemporary language studies is being carried out in even more specialized branches, some of which hardly existed 30 or 40 years ago.

Is That All There Is?

Certainly not. For both the scholar and the general reader, many fine books on linguistics and its subfields are available. But if asked to recommend a single text that is at once knowledgeable, accessible, and thoroughly enjoyable, plump for The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3rd ed., by David Crystal (Cambridge University Press, 2010). Just be warned: Crystal's book may turn you into a budding linguist.