By David Crystal
How many languages are there? Where do modern languages come
from? When did human beings first learn to speak? What's going on when somebody
speaks with a stammer? Why do people have different accents? How do children
learn their mother-tongue so quickly? Which language has the most speakers?
If questions like these intrigue you, you could be a born
linguist. That's 'linguist' meaning 'someone who practices linguistics', of
course, not 'someone who speaks a lot of languages fluently'. Linguistics is
the science of language. It is the subject whose practitioners devote their
energy to understanding why human language is the way it is. They study the
history, acquisition, structure, and use of as many languages as possible -
It would be nice to study them all, but life's too short. There are currently
about 6,000 languages to choose from.
You can specialise in any language, or group of languages,
when you study linguistics. I have friends working on Celtic languages, the
Romance languages, American Indian languages, Australian aboriginal languages,
or on just one language, such as Russian, Arabic, Welsh, Japanese - or English.
Exactly which ones you encounter in a course will vary greatly; but in principle,
the whole of the linguistic world is your oyster.
Linguists start with the study of individual languages, but
they don't stop there. Their long-term goal is to find out what all languages
have in common, and what makes them different. They want to establish the defining
characteristics of human languages? Do all languages have nouns? (yes) future
tenses? (no) vowels? (yes) nasal consonants? (no) Are there any languages
with just a few hundred words? (no) Do all languages have words for 'yellow'?
(no) Actually, a 'yes' answer should really be 'as far as we know' - for only
about two-thirds of the world's languages have so far had some study. There
's plenty to be done - but not all that much time to do it in, for languages
are dying all over the world as small communities become endangered by the steamroller
of modern global civilization. A language is dying, on average, every few weeks.
Why this is happening, and whether anything can be done about it, is something
else linguistics courses deal with. There's a real sense of urgency about the
subject these days.
But there's plenty to discover, even if you concentrate just
on English - English has over a thousand years of recorded history, a vast literature,
and a huge number of varieties of spoken and written expression, from airspeak
(the language used by air traffic control) to zoological nomenclature. Spoken
as a first, second, or foreign language by a quarter of the world's population,
it is also developing an unprecedented range of new dialects, as it spreads
around the world. All of this needs study. And courses on the English language
probe, with different selections and emphases, its sounds, spellings, grammar,
vocabulary, and pattens of discourse; its stylistic and social range, as seen
in literature and other special contexts, such as science and law; its accents
and dialects, both nationally and internationally; the stages through which
it emerges in children; and the way it has developed from Anglo-Saxon times
through the periods of Chaucer and Shakespeare to the present day.
The study of English language and linguistics is not only of
value for its own sake. There are several real-life problem areas which it can
help to illuminate. Many children have serious difficulties in learning to listen,
speak, read or write. Many adults lose their command of language after a stroke.
How can they be helped? Foreign language teaching and learning is now a major
global industry. Translating and interpreting are major international demands
. How can standards in these areas be improved? Several industries are beginning
to use computers to recognize and produce speech. How can quality be improved?
Progress in any of these situations presupposes a detailed analysis and awareness
of language, which is what courses on linguistics and the English language can
provide. Meanwhile, the questions roll on. What's the meaning of place-names?
Who wrote the first dictionaries and grammars? Where do irregularities in spelling
come from? How many words are there in English? ...
Honorary Professor of Linguistics at Bangor