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Chapter 1

What is Linguistics?






Linguistics is usually defined as ‘the scientific study of language. Such a statement, however, raises two further questions: what do we mean by ‘scientific’? and what do we mean by ‘language’? the first question can be answered relatively easily but the second needs to be examined more fully. When we say that a linguist aims to be scientific, we mean that he attempts to study language in much the same was as far as possible without prejudice. It means observing language use, forming hypotheses about it, testing these hypotheses and then refining that on the basis of the evidence collected. To get a simplified idea of what is meant, consider the following example. With regard to English, it might make a hypothesis that adjectives always precede nouns and support of this hypotheses, we could produce the following acceptable uses:


   a good man

   a dead tree


But against our hypothesis, we would find the following acceptable sentences:


   The man is good.

   The tree is dead.


Where our adjectives do not precede the nouns they modify, in addition, a careful study of the language would produce further samples such as:


   life everlasting

   mission impossible


As human beings, we all learn to speak at least one language because of this common ability, we tend to take this precious possession of language very much for granted. If we ask the man in the street what language is, he might say, “Oh, it is what we use in communication” or “It is made up of sounds when we speak” or “It is made up of words that refer to things”, or “It is made up of sentences that convey meaning.” Each of those statements contains a part of the truth, but as language teachers, our curiosity about language, the subject we teach, cannot be satisfied by such vague general statements or bits of unrelated information. Yes, language is used for communication, and it is made up of sounds. But what kinds of sounds and how are the sounds related to the words, the words to the sentences and the sentences to each other? We are interested in the relationships, because when we begin to see those relationships, we can understand how a language works .





       An important characteristic of language is recursion. This means sentences may be produced with other sentences inside them. This may be done, for example, by relativisation (the use of relative clauses): This is the boy that found the dog that chased the cat that … Another example of the process of recursion is conjunction (use of co-ordinating conjunctions) : Cheng went into the shop, (and he) asked for the manager, (and he) made a complaint, (and he) …

       Also, language is arbitrary. The relation between a word and its meaning is a matter of convention: the animal called dog in English is called anjing in Malay and aso in Filipino. That is there is no necessary connection between the sounds people use and the objects to which these sounds refer. Also, we cannot tell before hand that the adjective occurs before the noun in English but after the noun in Vietnamese and Bahasa Malaysia, if we are unfamiliar with these languages. Words have the meaning they do and occur in the order they do, just because the native speakers of the language agree to accept them as such.

       Language is a social phenomenon. It is a means of communication between individuals. It also brings them into  relationship with their environment. Language is therefore socially learned behavior, a skill that is acquired as we grow up in society.

      All languages are equally complex. Each language is part of the culture that produces it and is adequate for the needs of the people who use it. Any language, therefore, is as good as any other in that it serves the purposes of the particular culture. Words may be created or borrowed as the need arises. No language is intrinsically better or worse than any other.

       How does the human language differ from animal language? Animals too communicate with one another. They bark, rattle, hoot, bleat, etc., and to some extent, these noises serve the same purposes as human language. One difference is that the animal system of communication can produce only a limited number of messages and animals cannot produce new combinations of noises to meet the needs of new situations, as human beings can. Also, no animal system of communication makes use of the dual structure of sound and meaning with its complex relationships that we study as grammar.  Another important difference is that animal systems are genetically transmitted.





When a parrot utters words or phrases in our language, we understand them although it is reasonably safe to assume that the parrot does not. The parrot may be able to reproduce intelligible units from the spoken medium but has no awareness of the abstract system behind the medium. Similarly, if we hear a stream of sounds in a language we do not know, we recognize by the tone of voice whether the person is angry or annoyed but the exact meaning eludes us. To have mastery if a language, therefore, which are comprehensible to other users of the language, and in addition, being able to decipher the infinity of language patterns produced by other users of the language. It is thus a two-way process involving both production and reception.

        As far as speech is concerned, the process involves associating sounds with meaning and meaning with sounds. With writing, on the other hand, language competence involves the association of a meaning (and sometimes sounds) with a sign, a visual symbol. Thus, our study of language will involve us in an appraisal of all of the following levels of language:









When we have examined these levels and the way they interact, we will have acquired the necessary tools to study languages in general (linguistics), the variety in language and the uses to which people put languages (sociolinguistics), the ways in which people teach and learn languages (applied linguistics) and the value of the study of language in understanding the human mind (psycholinguistics).



Thu, 7 Jul 2011 @00:43


Bejo Sutrisno, M.Pd


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