Linguistics is narrowly defined as the scientific approach to the study of language, but language can, of course, be approached from a variety of directions, and a number of other intellectual disciplines are relevant to it and influence its study. Semiotics, for example, is a related field concerned with the general study of signs and symbols both in language and outside of it. Literary theorists study the use of language in artistic literature. Linguistics additionally draws on work from such diverse fields as psychology, speech-language pathology, informatics, computer science, philosophy, biology, human anatomy, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, and acoustics.
Within the field, linguist is used to describe someone who either studies the field or uses linguistic methodologies to study groups of languages or particular languages. Outside the field, this term is commonly used to refer to people who speak many languages or have a great vocabulary.
Before the twentieth century, the term “philology”, first attested in 1716, was commonly used to refer to the science of language, which was then predominantly historical in focus. Since Ferdinand de Saussure’s insistence on the importance of synchronic analysis, however, this focus has shifted and the term “philology” is now generally used for the “study of a language’s grammar, history and literary tradition,” especially in the United States, where it was never as popular as it was elsewhere (in the sense of the “science of language”).
Although the term “linguist” in the sense of “a student of language” dates from 1641, the term “linguistics” is first attested in 1847. It is now the usual academic term in English for the scientific study of language.
Fundamental concerns and divisions
Linguistics concerns itself with describing and explaining the nature of human language. Relevant to this are the questions of what is universal to language, how language can vary, and how human beings come to know languages. All humans (setting aside extremely pathological cases) achieve competence in whatever language is spoken (or signed, in the case of signed languages) around them when growing up, with apparently little need for explicit conscious instruction. While non-humans acquire their own communication systems, they do not acquire human language in this way (although many non-human animals can learn to respond to language, or can even be trained to use it to a degree). Therefore, linguists assume, the ability to acquire and use language is an innate, biologically-based potential of modern human beings, similar to the ability to walk. There is no consensus, however, as to the extent of this innate potential, or its domain-specificity (the degree to which such innate abilities are specific to language), with some theorists claiming that there is a very large set of highly abstract and specific binary settings coded into the human brain, while others claim that the ability to learn language is a product of general human cognition. It is, however, generally agreed that there are no strong genetic differences underlying the differences between languages: an individual will acquire whatever language(s) he or she is exposed to as a child, regardless of parentage or ethnic origin.
Linguistic structures are pairings of meaning and form; such pairings are known as Saussurean signs. In this sense, form may consist of sound patterns, movements of the hands, written symbols, and so on. There are many sub-fields concerned with particular aspects of linguistic structure, ranging from those focused primarily on form to those focused primarily on meaning:
* Phonetics, the study of the physical properties of speech (or signed) production and perception
* Phonology, the study of sounds (or signs) as discrete, abstract elements in the speaker’s mind that distinguish meaning
* Morphology, the study of internal structures of words and how they can be modified
* Syntax, the study of how words combine to form grammatical sentences
* Semantics, the study of the meaning of words (lexical semantics) and fixed word combinations (phraseology), and how these combine to form the meanings of sentences
* Pragmatics, the study of how utterances are used in communicative acts, and the role played by context and non-linguistic knowledge in the transmission of meaning
* Discourse analysis, the analysis of language use in texts (spoken, written, or signed)
Many linguists would agree that these divisions overlap considerably, and the independent significance of each of these areas is not universally acknowledged. Regardless of any particular linguist’s position, each area has core concepts that foster significant scholarly inquiry and research.
Alongside these structurally-motivated domains of study are other fields of linguistics, distinguished by the kinds of non-linguistic factors that they consider:
* Applied linguistics, the study of language-related issues applied in everyday life, notably language policies, planning, and education. (Constructed language fits under Applied linguistics.)
* Biolinguistics, the study of natural as well as human-taught communication systems in animals, compared to human language.
* Clinical linguistics, the application of linguistic theory to the field of Speech-Language Pathology.
* Computational linguistics, the study of computational implementations of linguistic structures.
* Developmental linguistics, the study of the development of linguistic ability in individuals, particularly the acquisition of language in childhood.
* Evolutionary linguistics, the study of the origin and subsequent development of language by the human species.
* Historical linguistics or diachronic linguistics, the study of language change over time.
* Language geography, the study of the geographical distribution of languages and linguistic features.
* Linguistic typology, the study of the common properties of diverse unrelated languages, properties that may, given sufficient attestation, be assumed to be innate to human language capacity.
* Neurolinguistics, the study of the structures in the human brain that underlie grammar and communication.
* Psycholinguistics, the study of the cognitive processes and representations underlying language use.
* Sociolinguistics, the study of variation in language and its relationship with social factors.
* Stylistics, the study of linguistic factors that place a discourse in context.