It’s crazy to think that I just finished my degree in Linguistics. People always ask me, “what really is linguistics?” and “why do you care so much about language?”
Language is incredible. It is a system allowing individuals to write comedy skits, sell you the ab trainer you will never use, and express their feelings towards you. Though, language has many layers to it and people studying Linguistics have to study these different aspects.
Linguists study language “prescription” and language “description” (Mooney, 2011). Language prescription is creating specific rules to dictate different language patterns (ex: when Canadians pronounce the word “house” the vowel sound is higher than when Americans pronounce it). Language description is the job of a linguist — to describe the characteristics of vowels and consonantal sounds to then describe what people are doing with their language. Language itself has many different aspects to it and can be split into phonetics, syntax, morphology, and semiotics.
Phonetics is the study of speech sounds. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) encompasses speech sounds that humans produce, allowing speakers to classify the way a person pronounces a word. The IPA is divided in a few ways. The “X-axis” or the top category represents how the speech sound is formed (ex: with the lips, teeth, glottis) and the “Y-axis” describes the area of air flow to produce the vocal sounds. As well, the pairs of letters are ordered as voiceless (your voice is not used to make the sound) letters first and then voiced letters second. For example the letters “p” and “b” are seen in the plosive, bilabial category in the IPA chart. A plosive is defined by a consonant being pronounced when airflow is stopped by the oral structure. “Bilabial” means two lips, when a word is pronounced by the closure of the lips such as the sounds for “p” and “b”. “P” is ordered first because it is voiceless and “B” is voiced (try making the /b/ sound continuously and the /p/ sound continuously to understand this concept).
Syntax is the study of word arrangement within a sentence to form a sensical sentence. For example “I was watching him the cookies eating he”, like my humour, makes no sense.
Morphology is the element of language dealing with word formation. This part of linguistics deals with affixes (prefixes, suffixes, infixes), root words, stresses in words, and clitics. As well as inflecting a word by changing it’s gender or plurality.
Semiotics — how we understand that when the traffic light turns red, it signifies “stop” (varying cross-culturally). This is the idea of unspoken language understood through signs and symbols (my favourite). It’s understanding the meaning behind someone rolling their eyes, holding hands, and even wearing perfume. As stated above, these signs and symbols vary cross-culturally — wearing a wedding ring on the left hand in Russia does not hold the same meaning in Canada (where in Russia it signals divorce and not marriage).
Finally, Semantics is the study of meaning in relation to the other aspects in a sentence. Semantics deals with logic and different meanings of words. For example: The bank was robbed — does the word “bank” refer to a “river bank” or a “place to deposit and withdraw money”? All about context and meaning.
It isn’t something we think about often (unless you are a linguist) but language is beautiful. It is the combination of phonetics, syntax, morphology, semantics, semiotics, and so many other aspects (including the magnificent relay systems in our brains which I will post about soon). Language can affect the way we are perceived by others. It can influence the acceptance into a group (is my dialect understood by other members in this group?), if someone’s parents will like you (not referring to someone’s dad as “bro”, “broski”, or “broseph”), if you’ll get the job interview, and if you’ll become elected to be the next president. An accent can revel where you are from geographically based on your pronunciation and your dialect, which may reveal which social class or area you come from as well.
Language is powerful. It gives us the opportunity to change how we are perceived, to grow and to create (the word “googling” wasn’t around when my parents were my age). It allows us to record facts and thoughts, to share our stories, and to express and share the simplest to the most innovative thoughts. The descriptions listed above coupled with science and language itself is what I studied. Sometimes I wish that Linguistics was a type of pasta (that’s linguini), but I think it’s still pretty cool.
Mooney, Annabelle. The Language, Society and Power Reader. London: Routledge, 2011. Print