What the **** is linguistics?

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

Excuse the *rude* title of this blog – I shall have more to say about why it is rude – even though it actually only contains a few stars – in subsequent blogs.

To begin, though:

If, like me, you are a teacher of linguistics, there are two questions which people will invariably ask you:

1. What IS linguistics?
and
2. What languages do you speak?

Those are the questions I want to write about today.

In answer to the first, linguistics is the study of language, no more, no less. Since language is (almost) as fundamental to the human race as breathing, it is probably quite important to know something about it. Linguistics is actually a whole collection of subjects, from the highly scientific – like whereabouts in the brain is the language faculty located? – to the philosophical – like why does a sentence mean what it means? – to the strictly structural – like what is the difference between a noun and a verb, and does the difference exist in all languages? – to the sociological and politically relevant – e.g., in what way are women linguistically at a disadvantage in our society, and in others, compared with men?

The answer to the second question is, strictly speaking, irrelevant. Even if I only speak one language, my ‘mother tongue’, I am perfectly able to study the various issues mentioned above. Chomsky, considered the originator of modern linguistics, thought that the ideal way to study language was by analysing the productions of ‘ the ideal speaker in a homogeneous community’. Studying such an ideal speaker would allow us to uncover principles of language which underlie all languages, the basic principles of the human language faculty.

However, more recently, more and more linguists have started to realize that what is most ‘universal’ about language is actually its diversity. The fact that people speak different languages, and within languages different dialects, and speak in different ways depending on their circumstances, their topic, their interlocutor, etc. is by far the most striking fact about human language, more so than the fact that all languages have something like a verb/noun distinction.

In coming blogs I will discuss the relevance of diversity and variation in language through examples mainly taken from the news and current affairs. I will try to show that linguistic questions concern us all, and hopefully convince you that there are rational and irrational ways of finding the answers to linguistic questions. Just as the fact that we all breathe does not make us experts in respiratory medicine, so the fact that we all communicate through language does not qualify us to pronounce on linguistics – though if you read the letter pages of any major newspaper it is stunning how many self-appointed experts on language/ grammar/spelling/usage there seem to be!

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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3 thoughts on “What the **** is linguistics?

    • I am not a linguist. My grammar is need of some attention and spelling is average. Nonetheless, I found a poor use of grammar and spelling grating. For example, EastEnders are obsessed with most of it’s characters not using grammar correctly. It is jarring to the ear. In addition to this, bad spelling and grammatical errors are distracting and can mislead the reader.

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