School of Linguistics & English Language

What is Linguistics?

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? ...

David Crystal,
Honorary Professor of Linguistics at Bangor

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