What is Linguistics?

If you’ve ever wondered why people speak the way they do, you may be interested in taking Linguistics courses. Linguistics is the study of how languages are structured, how language is organized in the mind, and how social structures shape languages. The study of Linguistics is interdisciplinary and is related to many other fields, including Anthropology, Communication Sciences and Disorders, Computer Science, Education, English, History, Law, Modern Languages, Philosophy, Psychology and Sociology.

Test Your Linguistics Skills

  1. The following sentence has more than one meaning. What are its possible meanings?
    The zookeeper poked the gorilla with a banana.
  2. How would you pronounce this word?
  3. In everyday conversation, you may hear sounds like these. What do you think they mean?
  4. What makes these sentences sound good or bad to you?
    He tried to assassinate the President.
    He tried to assassinate the rosebush.
  5. A sign with the following message is posted at the entrance to a parking lot. You park in a space, and get a ticket. What appeal can you make to the judge to get out of paying the fine?
    No Parking in All Spaces.
  6. How many meanings do you get for the word untieable?
  7. Why do children say things like, I goed to the store,” and I runned up the hill?

This sentence has more than one possible structure, with the words grouped differently in each structure. The different meanings are obtained from different structures. As one alternative, the sentence can have its words grouped as follows: The zookeeper [poked the gorilla] [with a banana]. Here, the zookeeper is using a banana to poke the gorilla. But if we put the brackets like this: The zookeeper poked[the gorilla with a banana], then the sentence is interpreted with the gorilla holding the banana.

George Bernard Shaw once claimed that the word “fish” could be spelled ghoti by using the pronunciation of “gh” in tough, the pronounication of “o” in women, and the pronunciation of “ti” in imagination. The study of the sound structure of language is Phonology.

In normal conversation, speaking quickly, the phrases, “hit me,” “hit you,” and “hit him” sound like hipme, hichu, and hidim respectively. Linguistic fields often overlap, as in this example. It shows how a word’s position in a sentence affects the way it is pronounced, combining the fields of Syntax and Phonology.

The problem with the sentence, “He tried to assassinate the rosebush,” is not its grammar, but its semantics. The verb assassinate is only used with humans, and usually only in regard to important public figures. Semantics is the study of meaning in human language.

The injunction No Parking in All Spaces has two possible meanings. It can mean that each parking space in the lot is subject to the restriction that no parking event may take place in it. On that meaning, you violated the restriction and should pay the fine. But it can also mean that no parking event can use all spaces in the lot. By appealing to this meaning, you can point out to the judge that you didn’t use all the spaces–you only parked in one of them–and thus, you should not have to pay the fine. In Semantics, we can approach this as a difference in the scopes of the quantified expressions no parking and all spaces–that is, a difference in what, exactly, is being quantified over by each expression.

The meaning of [untie][able] is “able to be untied,” whereas the meaning of [un][tieable] is “not able to be tied.” Morphology is the study of the smallest meaningful units of a language and how these are put together to form complex words.

Native English speakers have learned that the past tense of most verbs is formed by adding -ed, but that there are irregular verbs, like “go” and “run,” which have unusual past tenses. The way children make these mistakes shows us that children do not learn to speak by simple imitation (since they have probably heard went and ran as the past tense forms of these verbs), but that they form rules, and sometimes overgeneralize the application of these rules. Issues such as these are addressed in the study of language acquisition.