In a nutshell: (TL;DR version)
Linguistics is the study of the science of language. All languages, everywhere. Their similarities and differences, how they interact with each other and with people who learn and speak them, how they change and evolve over time. Language in general, language as a universal concept – from the first sounds a baby makes to how a new word becomes mainstream to how societies view their own language in relation to others to… just everything. Linguistics is BIG.
Linguists are “language scientists” — people who study language from just about any angle. Linguists like to observe different areas of language (such as language change, language learning, language history, etc.) and describe what is happening, what has happened, or even what might happen in a language or languages. It’s a tough thing to summarize in a nutshell.
Now, onward to the FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS, where you will learn more:
When a linguist and a person who has never met a linguist before meet for the first time, there are three questions that commonly come up:
1. So, how many languages do you speak?
This is by far the most frequently asked question that linguists get. Of course, the answer to this question will vary depending on the person you ask, but the truth is, the number of languages a linguist can speak doesn’t really matter.
Perhaps there is a misconception out there that the main goal of a linguist is to learn to speak as many languages as possible, especially the really tough, obscure, and exotic ones? Others seem to think that linguists are (by definition) living, breathing dictionaries that know all the grammar rules and how to spell every word in the English language. I can tell you honestly that this is NOT SO. Not by a long shot.
There are plenty of linguists who speak only one language, and there are also plenty of people who speak many languages that are not linguists. Although linguists are generally inclined to be interested in language and languages, this doesn’t necessarily mean that linguists are any better at spelling than most other academics. Even linguists need editors.
So, if linguists don’t speak lots of languages, and they haven’t memorized the dictionary, then…
2. What IS linguistics?
A linguist is someone who is interested in “language”. By “language”, I mean the topic of language in general, as opposed to specific, individual languages. Essentially, linguists study the science of language – sort of like how a political science expert might study “politics” in general, without ever running for office.
The field of linguistics aims to figure out as much as possible about all language; everything from it’s history, to how it changes, how children learn it, how computers understand it, how people learn new languages, how new words are created, the similarities and differences between languages around the world, and on and on… the possibilities are endless. Pretty much anything to do with language at all will fall somewhere under the general umbrella of linguistics.
All languages have five general components:
- Phonetics – the sounds a language uses
- Phonology – the ways that sounds combine in a language
- Morphology – how parts of words combine in a language
- Syntax – how a language puts words together to make sentences
- Semantics – the meaning of a language’s words
Apart from these fields, there lots of different aspects of linguistics that a linguist could study, such as:
- historical linguistics
- endangered languages
- language revitalization
- language documentation
- child language acquisition
- second language acquisition
- computational linguistics
- theoretical linguistics
- automatic speech recognition
- corpus linguistics
- writing systems
- forensic linguistics
- speech production
- language typology
- and many more
Most academic linguists end up concentrating on a few specific areas or fields within linguistics. It’s true that many linguists study certain aspects of one or two languages in particular, but it is important to note that being able to speak more than one language is not always necessarily required.
3. Okay, sure, but… what does a linguist DO?
Academic linguists generally do research in their area of expertise that will help others understand something about language. For example, a linguist might study the speech of people who have some kind of brain damage (from a stroke, or a car accident) that affects their speech. By studying the speech, a linguist might be able to spot patterns and start to understand what the difficulties are so that better treatments and solutions can be found to help the patients.
Another linguist might study the kinds of mistakes that learners of a second language make, and by researching and understanding those mistakes, they can provide the knowledge that will help develop better teaching methods for teachers to use in their classrooms.
Not every linguist is trying to “fix” something — for example, many linguists are interested in understanding how children learn language. Think about it… kids pick up language so naturally, without ever needing to have someone explain what a noun or a verb is. How do they do that?
If you think of a doctor who treats cancer patients, the doctor himself might not be the one in the laboratory doing the tests on the different drugs and treatments to see which ones work and which ones don’t. He relies on teams of scientists working away behind the scenes to come up with ideas, and when a scientist finds something that might work, other scientists test it to make sure, and eventually if a treatment looks promising enough, the doctors might start to incorporate it into their practice.
Linguists are those behind-the-scenes reserachers; they might not necessarily be the ones in the classroom teaching a language, but they play an important role in understanding the “how”s and “why”s of language.
Anyway, I think that’s more than enough for now. I could honestly go on forever. If you’ve got questions about linguistics, feel free to send them my way. I might not know all the answers myself, but I might know someone who does, and that’s something.
Oh, and if you think this page is too long, you’ll probably want to avoid the Wikipedia entry.