Human Language and linguistics: Defining linguistics

Introducing linguistics

There is a difference between acquiring a new language and learning a new language. Language learning is done in formal settings such as the classroom. On the other hand, language acquisition is when an individual acquires a new language through participating in social contents where a language is spoken. It is participatory, interactive and happens in real life contexts.

One of the features or characteristics of human languages is the learnability. This means that all languages are learnable. Anyone can learn any language at any age. I will not go into discussing the relationship between age and language learning/acquisition in this paper.

It is theoretically and practically impossible for anyone to learn all human languages because they are innumerable. This point does not water down the point I made in my second paragraph. It simply means that to know all languages, you either need to learn them or acquire them in their location where they are used by native speakers. That’s humanly impossible.

What is possible is to know about and precisely describe human languages using scientific methods. The first place to start is linguistics, a term used to describe the scientific study of languages. People who study languages from a scientific point of view are called linguists. Linguists study the structure of language empirically at all levels namely, phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics.

Linguistics is divided in micro-linguistics and macro-linguistics. Micro-linguistics covers the basic components or constituents of a language. This is also referred to as theoretical linguistics. Theoretical linguists study the structural aspects of language under the broad label of grammar. Grammar is further divided into form and meaning. Under form is phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax while meaning is semantics.

The other field is macro-linguistics. Macro-linguistics refers to aspects of linguistic study which involve the application of the findings of theoretical linguistics to the analysis of language in use. It is also called Applied Linguistics, because it involves the application of linguistics in relation to other disciplines. The sub-fields that come under this label include: sociolinguistics, historical linguistics, mathematical linguistics, ethno-linguistics, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, and clinical linguistics.

I must mention that most universities teach the levels of analysis as individual courses. You can find my tutorials on skillripe.com and if you have any questions, please contact me. In the following paragraphs, I introduce each of the levels of analysis.

Levels of linguistic analysis/study

To study linguistics, linguists have divided it into levels of study or analysis. These make it easy to study linguistics as it follows then natural order of language acquisition. This can be understood if you look at how human beings learn language. A child learns language first by making sounds which do not make sense even in a child’s language or its mother’s language. So, there is a dedicated branch or level that looks at sounds in general. This level of analysis is called Phonetics. Phonetics is the linguistic analysis of human sounds in general. It focuses on how speech sounds are articulated, how they are received and perceived by the human ear and how they are formed and which organs produce which sounds.

I want to mention that, I am just using the analogy of a child to help you understand how linguists have divided linguistic studies in to levels. I do not mean that linguistics is studied at each stage of child growth or child development. Now that we are clear, let’s proceed.

So, when a child grows enough to master the sounds, s/he begins to focus on sounds particular to his or her language. In parallel, linguistics has a branch of linguistic analysis which looks sounds of a particular language. It’s called Phonology.  Phonology is the study of how sounds are structured or patterned to convey meaning. Knowledge of the phonology of a language allows you to combine sounds that make meaningful speech. Having phonological knowledge means for example, knowing what sounds can combine together to form words, what sounds can occur at the beginning or at the end of a word, and how they should be pronounced.

The child continues to emerge in a language and begins to learn the right combination of sounds to form words. For instance, a child growing up in a Bemba speaking community begins to learn that to talk about the past, the sound –li- for far past as in a-li-isa (he/she came, sometimes in the past beginning yesterday into antiquity) and –ci- as in a-ci-lya (he/she ate, sometime in the past but today) for near past are added in front of the stem (the child does not know what these things are anyway). In linguistics, we talk about understanding the internal structure of words. This is studied in Morphology.  Morphology is the level of linguistic study concerned with the internal structure of words and rules of word formation. It is devoted to the study of rules governing the formation of words in human language. The morpheme is the smallest meaningful grammatical unit. The morpheme is the basic unit that combines to form words.

Continuing with the story of a child, we now understand that the child has to start combining words to form sentences. At the beginning, sentences formed by a child may not be grammatically correct but every human being is endowed with the ability to know that words must be combined in a particular order. That’s why we correct those who flout such grammatical rules. The level of analysis concerned with this kind of study is Syntax. Syntax is the branch of linguistics that is concerned with how words are arranged to build up longer expressions. The term syntax as used in its broadest sense refers to both the arrangement and the forms of word. It is the part of language which links together the sound patterns and the meaning.

Apart from the meaning that a child may begin to communicate or express meaning in grammatically correct sentences, the child might want to express himself or herself in particular way. In linguistics, we talk of an area concerned with the study of meaning of words, phrases and sentences in language. It is called Semantics. Semantics examines the way in which language expressions show or express meaning.

All the levels of analysis mentioned hitherto deal with micro-linguistics. If you have paid attention, you have noticed that all these branches or levels of analysis focus on grammar, which is divided into form and meaning. The next section will focus on language in context or language in use. This goes beyond looking at the structure or forms of words or morphemes. Here we look at how the child begins to use the nuances of linguistic structures to express herself in the context of her family, community and society at large. We also focus on how language affects society.

 A child now begins to use language in ways hidden in the words and context used in. This is studied in pragmatics. Pragmatics is a branch of study that is concerned with the ability of language users to pair sentences with the context in which they (the sentences) would be appropriate.  Pragmatics studies the ways that context affects meaning. It reveals that meaning affects the world and is also affected by the world. It shows that meaning is contextually determined.

Another level of analysis which shows language in use is discourse analysis. Discourse Analysis is the field of study analyses connected speech or writing beyond the limits of a single sentence at a time. Its focus is on a larger portion like a paragraph or a text.

The last level to discuss here is Psycholinguistics. Psycholinguistics, otherwise known as the psychology of language, is the study of language in relation to the human mind: the mental structures and processes, which are involved in the acquisition and use of language. It involves the study of the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable human beings to acquire, use and understand language, and the cognitive processes that make it possible to generate a grammatical and meaningful sentence out of vocabulary and grammatical structures, as well as the processes that make it possible to understand utterances, words, texts, etc.

Last word on linguistics

To conclude this article, I can say that linguistics is one of the best courses one can engage in. If you are contemplating taking linguistic studies at any university, you have chosen a challenging but fulfilling path.

Tell me what you think about this article. If you need help in understanding these, please let me know. You can also join my tutorials in linguistics on skillripe.com where I have simplified everything you need to know about each level of analysis.

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