Language is everywhere — in old books and new words, in a long conversation with a friend and a short chat with a stranger, the endless streams on our social media feeds and the snippets on the back of a cereal box.
Language spans our whole lives — from one of the first things we encounter as babies to our famous last words. We can observe and study how language works like any other natural phenomenon, and that’s Linguistics.
Linguists try to understand the big picture — how does language work in general? What’s going on in our minds and our societies that allows every group of humans to have language, spoken or signed? And why do each of us use language slightly differently?
Linguistics is the study of language.
What do we mean by studying language?
Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Let’s pretend I’m on a trip to another country. The sun is shining, and I’m enjoying some time in a place where I don’t know anyone and I don’t speak the language. Then I meet another person walking along, and while we’re both admiring the flowers, a rabbit hops into view. The person points at the hopping rabbit and says ‘gavagai!’. So I think, “that must be the word in this person’s language for ‘rabbit’. If I reply with ‘rabbit’ we could both learn something!” But maybe that’s not exactly what the other person meant. Does “gavagai” mean “rabbit”? Maybe it just means “fuzzy animal,” or “hopping” or just “Hey look!” Or even, as the linguistic philosopher W.V. Quine proposed, “Lo, an undetached rabbit-part!” Or maybe this particular rabbit’s name is Gavagai.
I could ask, but I don’t speak the language yet. And figuring out how to ask about these complex ideas requires us to first know some more basic, concrete words —like “rabbit,” which is what we’re trying to figure out in the first place. We need to get out of this loop.
Let’s start by making some tentative assumptions, but we’ll stay prepared for some of them to be wrong. I’ll smile, point at the hopping bunny, and say “rabbit.” At least, I’m indicating a desire to communicate, even though neither of us can be sure exactly what the other person is trying to say. As I walk with my new friend, pointing at animals and sharing words, both of us can test and refine our initial linguistic hypotheses. Maybe we encounter some baby rabbits and I learn that they’re not called “Gavagai,” so I can update my mental entry for “Gavagai” to “fully-grown rabbit question mark?” Maybe I’ll realize something about English that I hadn’t noticed before, when I try to explain it — like the subtle difference between “rabbit” and “bunny.” Thanks, Thought Bubble!
As we just saw, language is a unique area to study because we need to use it to study it. On the one hand, this means that we can do a lot of linguistics without needing fancy equipment, because language is right there in our brains and in the people around us. On the other hand, this also means that we need to be really precise about cultivating meta-linguistic awareness —we need to test and examine our assumptions about how language works.
To do this, linguists have identified a few key features that distinguish a language from other ways of communicating.
First, language exists at two levels. There’s the level of the form, like sounds or handshapes, which don’t have meaning in themselves. Then there’s the level of combinations of forms that create meaning. So, when it comes to speech, the sounds b, ʌ, n and i don’t mean anything individually, but can be combined to make ‘bunny’ like our new friend Gavagai. Or, those same sounds can be rearranged to make ‘nubby’, because it’s the combination that makes the meaning, not the individual sounds.
This idea that words are made of two levels of structure is known as the duality of patterning. Also, when we look at other languages, we can see there’s no reason why a rabbit has to be called “bunny.” It could be conejo, kelinci, gavagai or rabbit. There’s no inherent connection between the word ‘bunny’ and this furry thing it refers to: all these other sequences of sounds and handshapes also refer to this animal. The words we use are ‘signs’ that reference things in the world, like how a street sign labels which street you’re on.
But usually there’s no specific reason why a particular word, or set of smaller units of sound or shapes, are used. So we can say the choice is arbitrary. This feature of language is known as the arbitrariness of the sign, and distinguishes a language from other kinds of communication. Now, it’s a bit confusing, because “sign” means two things in linguistics: first, a “sign” is anything that conveys a meaning beyond itself.
The word “rain” and the smell of moisture in the air can both be signs of rain. The word “rain” is an arbitrary sign, since it’s unconnected to the weather. A human could’ve said the word rain and pointed at a rock or a tree or Gavagai and the sign could’ve stuck. But instead it’s a sign that we arbitrarily (but collectively) decided to use for this kind of weather. But the smell of moisture is a non-arbitrary sign, since it’s super connected to the experience of water droplets falling from the sky.
Second, we use “sign” in “a signed language.” Here, we mean a language which is produced using the hands, arms, and face (compared to a spoken language, which is produced using the tongue, lips, and throat). So, the “signs” that make up “sign languages” are a subset of the first kind of signs, as are spoken words: the kind of signs that convey a meaning beyond themselves.
Speaking of sign languages, it might be tempting to assume that sign languages are less arbitrary, because in words like “rabbit” in ASL, the handshape looks a bit like a rabbit’s ear. But there are still many arbitrary reasons this signal means ‘rabbit’ and not something else. For example, the Australian Sign Language or Auslan sign RABBIT looks very different.
Spoken languages can have less-arbitrary-seeming patterns, too. In Swahili “chafya” means “sneeze.” Both “chafya” and ‘sneeze’ have sounds that rush out of your throat like the friction of a sneeze. In contrast, ‘mbweu’ means ‘burp’, and both these words have the burp of a serious belch. Oh, ‘belch,’ that also kinda has the feeling. Still arbitrary, though!
Anyway, once we start building up meaning from smaller units, there are two more features that make language different from just any old communication system. One is that we can use language to talk about things that happened in the past, will happen in the future, or may happen in other worlds. Being able to talk about things that aren’t right here right now is known as displacement. Another is that we can use language to talk about language — otherwise it would make doing linguistics hard.
The ability to get meta about language is the feature of reflexivity. When we examine other kinds of communication with these four design features in mind, we can see how they stack up against language. Bees do a complicated waggle dance to show their fellow bees where to find nectar, but they can’t do it to tell a story about some great flowers they found last week or hope to find tomorrow. Their waggle dances can’t manage the full range of the displacement feature. A parrot may be able to mimic the sound of many words in a language but it doesn’t understand the meaning of those sounds. Parrots don’t manage duality of patterning. A dog wagging its tail always means that it’s happy, regardless of what culture the dog lives in — it’s not an arbitrary sign.
Animals can communicate, but none of the ways animals communicate have all the design features of human language. Beyond animals, we know emojis aren’t going to become their own language until we can use emojis to write a story about emojis .
Emojis don’t have the feature of reflexivity. Because of the unique features of human languages, the number of words and sentences we can make out of our bodies is infinite —even though the human body that we use to make them is limited. With two hands, two arms and ten fingers, there’s only so many distinct signs we can make, and with the tongue, lips, teeth and throat, there’s only so many sounds.
With this small set of shared ingredients, humans have created over 7000 identified languages and so many varieties within them. For example, you may know someone who speaks your language but has a different word for something than you do, or pronounces the same word differently than you do. Like that thing that you might call a water fountain? I call it a bubbler.
Linguists are interested in all the different varieties of languages that people speak and sign — not just the standardized version that gets taught in schools. That’s because all language varieties tell us interesting things about how people use language.
Linguists study the variations within languages, as well as language itself. They approach the study of language by looking at the different levels of structure that all languages have in common.
First, there’s the study of individual sounds in spoken languages, or handshapes in signed languages, which is called phonetics. Languages combine these individual sounds or handshapes into words according to specific patterns, and the study of that is called phonology.
Next, they can study how longer words can often be broken down into an internal structure, an area called morphology. The study of how words group together to make sentences is syntax. And we can study and talk about the meaning of words and sentences, or semantics, and meaning in a larger social context, or pragmatics.
There are also ways we can analyze the structure of these different levels of language, or the meaning that they create.
We can look at the language choices people make and how this relates to society, history, or the brain. Linguists find language to study in many different ways, like observing people, asking them questions, or doing experiments with them. Linguists can work with existing text, recordings, video, or historical documents, too. And because we each know at least one language, we can sometimes even figure certain things out by consulting the language knowledge in our own heads a process called introspection.
Linguistics is relevant to anyone who uses language, but it’s especially relevant to certain people and industries. It’s directly relevant to speech pathologists, and people building speech recognition tools like the voice assistant on your phone. A knowledge of linguistics can also help people who teach grammar or languages. It’s also useful for lawyers, writers, editors, poets, journalists and people who work in jobs that require thoughtful understanding of language as a tool.
Finally, understanding linguistics and how language works is valuable for anyone who wants to better understand humans and the world we live in.